National Geographic
Menu

Marching to Save the Elephant on October 4

“Whoever has seen these giants marching across the last free open spaces of the world knows that this is something that must not be lost.”
– Romain Gary, The Roots of Heaven

Several years ago, Marie and I began to mourn the tragic dismembering of elephant society across Africa, an act that caused us to cry for the future of the greatest land mammal on earth. As we heard about the rising tide of deaths, elephants wept and mourned for their kind. Elephant society and culture were and continue to be shattered. It was the beginning of the second phase of destruction in contemporary history, the first beginning in the 1980s when 600,000 were annihilated to feed the world’s greed for ivory souvenirs. In 2011 alone, 30,000 elephants were mutilated for trinkets to be sold in the Asian market. The great heart of Africa was being laid waste, not for billiard balls and piano keys as Stanley once wrote, but for toothpicks and statuettes across Asia, with China the main culprit. In 2009, in response to the suffering these great animals were experiencing, we published Walking Thunder – In the Footsteps of the African Elephant by Merrell London, prefaced by the remarkable Dame Daphne Sheldrick, whose compassion for the elephants of Kenya and its orphans is a testament to the best of the human species.

Photo Courtesy of Cyril Christo.
Photo Courtesy of Cyril Christo.

We approached many magazine and news outlets to write about the resurgent poaching issue in 2009 and 2010, but it was Vanity Fair that finally understood the enormous implications of what was occurring across the continent. It took five months of talks, but they finally said they would cover it. In November 2010, they sent the gifted Alex Shoumatoff, who covered the death of Diane Fossey, to Africa to write Agony and Ivory, one of the most scorching and all-encompassing articles on a single species in the history of journalism. In it, Alex mentions the stirrings of an extinction vortex that, like a modern-day Scylla and Carybdis, was swallowing the last great herds of Africa. The article went viral and galvanized the world. National Geographic followed 14 months later with their heart-wrenching cover story Blood Ivory by Bryan Christy, which further galvanized the planet to a reality that has now plunged a stake in the conscience of the world, the slaughter of the innocents. The searing image of a rotting body was a wake-up call to the world that this action and thousands like it hold a mirror to humanity at its most depraved and barbaric. A plethora of other articles and campaigns have since arisen around the world. The planet is now firmly entrenched in Battle for the Elephants, the documentary shown nationally in February and directed by John Heminway. What few realize is that the battle for the elephant is also a battle for the human soul. We walked out of Africa alongside elephants, they helped us find water in times of drought, and their bodies have fed us for countless millennia. We are indebted to the elephant as we are to few, perhaps no, other species in our evolution.

The upcoming International March for Elephants will be held October 4, 2013, across three continents and 13 cities – from London to Rome, from Cape Town to New York, from Nairobi to Toronto, from DC to San Francisco, from Bangkok to Los Angeles, from Paris to Melbourne – and is inspired by the David Sheldrick (husband of Dame Daphne Sheldrick) Wildlife Trust. It is an October revolution for the life force of Earth. It is the first global march for another species in the history of humankind. This global tide of reckoning is a planetary wake-up call for the biosphere. If we cannot save the elephant, what on earth can we save? As The Guardian recognized, animal extinction is the greatest threat to humanity. Last year, John Kerry convened an Ivory and Insecurity meeting in Washington, D.C., addressing the larger ramifications of the ivory trade and its links to terrorism. A few days ago, Hillary Clinton made saving the elephants her new cause. President Obama recently met with the president of Tanzania to discuss the illicit wildlife trade, poaching, and the future of the elephant, and promised $10 million to stop wildlife trafficking, one of the biggest industries in the world. Increased vigilance and anti-poaching units are now responding, but something intangible must also occur in the hearts of those who buy ivory. With a critical mass of conscience on the upsurge, the upcoming march is a plea for sanity, a prayer for continuity, for I believe that when the tide is reversed and the ivory trade is finally eradicated, we will have landed on a new planet and humanity will have taken a step back from its own oblivion. If we do not reverse course, the loss of the elephant will have played a critical role in the fall of the human empire. There will be no turning back.

Photo Courtesy of Cyril Christo.
Photo Courtesy of Cyril Christo.

There are the realities of climate change too titanic to ignore, but the willful eradication of a part of our psyche that sits enthroned like a monument in the mind and soul of humanity cannot be ignored. It was Romain Gary who understood that the elephants were the last individuals. In his masterpiece The Roots of Heaven, he imagined prisoners in concentration camps closing their eyes and thinking of the elephants marching freely in the last open spaces of the world. He imagined them tearing down the barbed wire fences, reinforced concrete, and abject materialism of the camps and stepping over the SS soldiers. For make no mistake, if we were to lose the elephants, the ramifications would be a penal colony on our planet, not just for humanity but for the entire life force. It is why Elie Wiesel told us that to save the elephant “is an urgent moral imperative.” The March for the Elephants is also a march for the sea and the rainforests and the frogs and the lions and tigers and bears. It is a march for what makes life ineffable. This was summarized by a ranger in Tsavo who worked for the orphaned elephants Dame Daphne has worked so tirelessly to rehabilitate. He had lost his grandfather to an elephant years ago and yet was not vindictive. He realized it was an accident and that elephants are losing ancient ancestral migration paths and habitat. In his wonderfully stark, elegant face and camouflage fatigues he turned to us and said, “A world without elephants is like a world without oxygen.”

The upcoming march is a march for sanity. As one Samburu elder once told us, without the elephants and the whales and the other beings of earth, we will lose our minds. If much stiffer penalties, greatly increased jail time and fines for poachers are not enough to reverse course, then consider the curse many tribal people believe is cast on those who kill elephants. They say it is not just another animal, but they are the mind of nature. What we are beholden to is our place on earth before the cybernetic stare overwhelms the biology and life support system of the planet. As some of the largest consumers of ivory, the Chinese must do everything they can to marshal a transformation in the heart of their people for the rhino and elephant, for Chinese children, too, will want to know that these ineffable beings still exist 100 years from now and beyond. The realization that the panda is irreplaceable must now be extended to Africa’s megafauna. In doing so, China and Asia will save face and avoid enormous shame for the remainder of their history. Henry David Thoreau, in his prophetic voice, understood the slaughter of the whales for oil and also the killers of elephants for ivory. He imagined a greater race than ours making buttons and flageolets out of our bones The elephant is one of the greatest ballasts we have on terrestrial ground – ecologically, spiritually, morally and even karmically. Lose the elephant and we execute wonder, for as we learned in Africa, the word pil, elephant in Hebrew, is the root of the verb to wonder.

Photo Courtesy of Cyril Christo.
Photo Courtesy of Cyril Christo.

“On an entirely manmade earth, there can be no room for man either,” wrote Romain Gary. “All that will be left of us are robots.”

Already there are stirrings of a realization in the Orient, stirrings in the minds and hearts, that elephants have to be killed to retrieve their tusks, that tusks do not fall out like milk teeth! How they do not realize the truth is one of the great mysteries of the human condition and illumines the great cultural gap between East and West. Perhaps they are willfully ignorant and choose to ignore the diabolical realities. But there is evidence that with the media campaigns and billboards through International Fund for Animal Welfare, WildAid and other agencies, the Chinese may be finally coming to grips with the grotesque idea that elephants have to have their faces sawed off to get at their teeth. Compared to just a year ago, many more are saying that they don’t want to buy ivory. Maybe the campaigns are starting to impact the great civilization of Lao Tze. The great dijjaga tusker in India who was out of control bowed before the stalwart heart and mind of the Buddha. It is a lesson we should learn before it is too late.

Lose the elephant and you lose a firmament in the imagination of childhood. Lose the elephant and an entire foundation in the moral standing of civilization crumbles. All our human constructs and artifacts would pale before the loss of these titans. With the last elephants still marching on African soil, we may still have reason to walk toward the absolute horizon. The march this October is not only to salvage the elephant, but to salvage what is left of humanity’s humanity. It is a march for sanity. Without the elephants, we become ontological cripples for the rest of our earthly stay. The elephant’s future is our fate and responsibility. Without elephants we won’t have a leg to stand on. Civilization will stand or fall on the back of the African elephant.

– Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

All images are copyright protected and may not be used without permission. All photos are courtesy of Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.

Do you have a story to share about how you’re helping save the world? Do you want to tell YOUR story about biodiversity and what it means to you? If you’re interested in connecting the human animal to the global ecosystem, submit content to Izilwane–Voices for Biodiversity!

Comments

  1. Patty Shenker
    Los Angeles, Ca. USA
    November 14, 2013, 1:25 pm

    Here is my iMovie about the International March for the Elephants! Trumpets and Thanks to all who came & who care!

  2. Marianne Romano
    Lambertville, NJ USA
    October 16, 2013, 2:11 pm

    We had the honor of marching in Princeton NJ with all the other global marches that took place on Oct 4th 2013. During my pre-march speech, I quoted several lines from this deeply moving article. Thank you! BTW Hopewell Valley Community Bank sponsored our NJ march & offered to donate $10 to The Elephant Santuary in TN with every new checking account that was opened. That is a bank that cares about community!!

  3. Marianne Romano
    Lambertville NJ
    October 16, 2013, 1:49 pm

    This is a deeply moving article which I quoted from at our march in Princeton NJ on Oct 4th. Hopewell Valley Community Bank sponsored our march!!! And…they offered a special through the end of October…open a checking fee free liberty checking acount and they will make a $10 donation to The Elephant Santuary in TN. Now thats a bank to bank with!!!!

  4. david leshan
    kenya
    October 10, 2013, 4:42 am

    having watched eles as i call them, in the wild grazing, mud bathing ,trumpeting ,playing and take care of their young are some of my best moments in life.lets all match to create awareness especially in asia about what killing them is doing to not only their society but ours too.i appreciate what the sheldricks are doing in kenya..

  5. Cecilia
    Downingtown
    October 6, 2013, 11:05 pm

    42 cities around the world marched on October 4th to protest the brutal and rampant poaching of elephants. My family and I marched in Washington, D.C. I hope the world wakes, and I hope this slaughter is stopped so we can save these gentle giants for many more generations. Please say no to ivory, save the elephants.

  6. Tessa
    bristol
    October 4, 2013, 8:39 am

    Thought you might like to hear this elephants on parade song “Pink elephants” performed by Count Bobo and The Bullion (starts at 1.30)

  7. Helen
    Ireland
    October 3, 2013, 9:47 am

    This article goes straight to the heart and opens it. Best I’ve read! God bless your hand

  8. Åsa Billefält
    Sverige
    October 3, 2013, 8:31 am

    I wish we could march like this in Sweden for the elephants. Well, I would do it.

  9. Fiona Gordon
    October 2, 2013, 4:40 am

    Join the International March for Elephants

    Visit http://www.iworry.org

    Please join the digital march if you cannot make the march on one of the 40 cities – your children will thank you for it, so will the elephants!

    An international issue that needs an international voice and international action.

    From Toronto to hong Kong, New York to New Zealand…we are getting LOUDER.

  10. Barbara Peterson
    New Jersey, USA
    October 1, 2013, 6:58 am

    This is truly one of the most beautiful articles that I have ever read. Thank you for writing it. I will be marching on the 4th in NYC.

  11. Kyra Povirk
    Salmon, Idaho
    September 30, 2013, 9:17 am

    Thank you so much for helping raise awareness; any decrease in the demand for ivory is a small victory. I will be at the march in Los Angeles on Friday and hope to see some of your other readers there! The International March for Elephants – Los Angeles group has a Facebook page with event and parking details. The group will meet by 11am at the WILSHIRE FEDERAL BLDG, 11000 Wilshire Bldg., Westwood CA; the march will last from 11am-2pm. We expect a great turnout and, again, Thank You!

  12. Gillian Semple
    Toronto, Ontario Canada
    September 30, 2013, 7:58 am

    I too have had the great opportunity to see elephants in the wild when I was in Kenya last year. A truly humbling experience. God bless these magnificent animals.

  13. Andrew Kern
    United States
    September 29, 2013, 10:16 pm

    What a powerful message that resonates so clearly that I hope the Asians will also hear and understand. thank you for writing this.

  14. Singer Rankin
    September 29, 2013, 12:01 pm

    Magnificent!

  15. Jair Cortines Laxe Junior
    BRASIL
    September 28, 2013, 10:34 am

    ESSA COVARDIA TEM QUE ACABAR.

  16. Ushka Devi
    Scarborough, S Africa
    September 28, 2013, 8:56 am

    A haunting piece of journalism. A praisesong, protest and plea for wildlife and nature, a call to put the humanity back in humanity. A march for sanity.
    With reverence of interconnections of all life, from a blade of grass to a star. We are one*

  17. Gerry Lloyd
    Plymouth
    September 28, 2013, 7:01 am

    Stopping the Asian traffic in ivory is almost as important as stopping drug trade.

  18. Jude Price
    Adelaide, South Australia
    September 28, 2013, 5:07 am

    Thank you for all you have done for elephants. It is an irony and tragedy that because of the Al Shabaab attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi – the Kenyan Authorities have cancelled the Nairobi March. The “Home” Of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust who started the International MArch for Elephants. May every other city – the 15 DSWT Marches and the 24 other cities marching all MArch FOR kenya and the African Range states affected by this deadly scourge. It is our generation who is responsible for this. We must end the slaughter. A world without elephants is unthinkable.
    http://www.elephantectivism.org

  19. Elizabeth
    September 27, 2013, 8:17 pm

    And there are numerous other support marches around the world on Oct 4: http://www.marchforelephants.org

  20. Elizabeth
    Houston, TX
    September 27, 2013, 8:16 pm

    For those living in Houston, Texas, please join us in our support march with the Houston Zoo Wildlife Conservation Department, Whole Foods Kirby & Elephantopia!

  21. liu wai ling
    Hong Kong
    September 27, 2013, 7:40 pm

    Please save our elephants on October 4, this is important and necessary to stand for elephants . their ecosystem is most danger , due to human hunting and killing , please stop it , this is wrong , it is not fair, , give them free run in t he wild, ban this inhumane and ivory trade for all elephants . Thank you

  22. Andrea Speraw
    San Francisco
    September 27, 2013, 6:01 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful article. As part of the team that is organizing the march in San Francisco we couldn’t have asked for anything better than to have the march covered in NG. I do want to point out, however, that there are now 38 cities marching worldwide (there were 39 but to ensure safety the one in Nairobi was canceled yesterday). Thank you again for your excellent assessment of this crisis.

  23. Laura Lear
    United States
    September 27, 2013, 5:49 pm

    This is an amazing article that brought tears to my eyes and hope to my heart. I’m marching today to preserve and protect these magnificent creatures who have something to teach us all.

  24. Donald Olmstead
    Lafayette, California
    September 27, 2013, 5:30 pm

    Actually, there will marches for the elephants in 39 cities around the world — 15 marches sponsored by DSWT, plus 24 independent marches. See the complete list of cities at http://www.marchforelephants.org/

  25. Tory Braden
    USA
    September 27, 2013, 5:06 pm

    Such a well versed article. I am thankful that Chinese consumers are waking up to death for ivory. But it is the carving factories that must be called out as the shame of China since their orders tusks literally end up in the carvers’ laps. Nothing carved = nothing to buy. Our governments must demand that: China Shut Down Your Carving Factories.

  26. Erica Dorrington
    San Francisco
    September 27, 2013, 4:28 pm

    Actually, there are 38 cities marching across the globe. http://www.marchforelephants.org

  27. Lois Olmstead
    United States
    September 27, 2013, 4:23 pm

    There will be 39 cities which will be marching for the elephants on October 4th. To find a city near you, please go to http://www.marchforelephants.org. Thank you!

  28. Stacie Brink
    Oregon, USA
    September 27, 2013, 4:20 pm

    There will be nearly 40 cities marching on October 4, 2013 for the beloved elephant. Please click the link below and check out these cities for the one nearest you and March for the Elephants!

    http://www.marchforelephants.org/#!march-for-elephants-worldwide-locations/c18e6