The world's largest land animal looms small in the distance. Africa's elephant poaching crisis doesn't just threaten a species, but imperils one of humanity's most important links to the natural world and even our collective sanity, according to acclaimed photographers and film-makers, Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson. Photo by: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

By Jeremy Hance
12 September 2013

(mongabay.com) – Africa's elephant poaching crisis doesn't just threaten a species, but imperils one of humanity's most important links to the natural world and even our collective sanity, according to acclaimed photographers and film-makers, Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson. Authors of the book Walking Thunder - In the Footsteps of the African Elephant, Christo and Wilkinson have been documenting Africa's titans in photos and film for several years. In 2011, the pair released a film Lysander's Song (named after their son an avid fan of elephants) which depicts the millennial-old relationship between humans and elephants.

"The elephant inhabits our imaginations like few species in the history of our kind. We are probably indebted to elephants for having helped us survive droughts because they knew where to find water and when the rains would arrive. They are self-aware and they mourn their dead … they know who they are. They are the spirit of nature!" Christo and Wilkinson told mongabay.com in an interview. "Just as there is a movement among scientists and philosophers to give cetaceans non-human person status, so should the great apes and elephants. It is a question of morality, mind, ecology and spirit because a world without these beings invites a world that is no longer habitable for humans."

Since the late 2000s, poaching of Africa's elephants for their ivory has hit levels not seen for decades. Experts now warn that some 30,000 elephants are being butchered every year for their ivory, much of which is smuggled abroad to East Asia. The crisis, which has coincided with skyrocketing poaching of rhinos as well, has not only decimated populations of the world's largest terrestrial animal, but has also changed elephant behavior, according to the filmmakers.

Response to the poaching crisis has been slow, but is beginning to pick up speed. In July of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged $10 million to help African nations train wildlife rangers and police to mitigate the illegal trade. In addition, this week the U.S. has announced it will destroy it's ivory stockpile. The U.S. remains one of the biggest destinations for ivory behind East Asian countries. Last year the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which has been decidedly slow to address the crisis, put China, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda on notice: the eight countries must make progress on combating the ivory trade by summer 2014 or face sanctions on all wildlife trading.

But it's not just governments that need to step up, according to Christo and Wilkinson, but people too. They encourage people to join the up-coming March for Elephants.

"Ours is a pivotal time for the biosphere. The elephant is its terrestrial monarch and without it a kingdom crumbles. […] People need to voice their concern and their outrage in the media, school children everywhere need to send petitions to politicians and their elders, to President Obama and to the President of China and remind them to continue the campaign to stop the ivory trade."

Christo and Wilkinson are also the authors of a new photography book coming out in October: In Predatory Light.

Mongabay: Will you tell us about your background? How did you become photographers?

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson: Marie and I have been recording stories and documenting the effects of climate change and globalization since 1997 on our first trip around the world and then again in 1999. We heard from native people the world over that rain patterns were changing and that droughts were increasing. Some of the starkest evidence of these changes can be witnessed in Africa where the relationship between the human species and wildlife is most evident. In Beryl Markham's word's Africa is a "photographer's paradise" but it is also a thirsting purgatory and the origin of our species. Africa's lessons are a testing ground for the planet.

Mongabay: What propelled you to take on advocacy for elephants?

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson: We wanted to pay homage to the greatest land mammal on earth, a being with whom we walked out of Africa. It is truly the being on terrestrial ground that inspires complete awe and wonder and it should command utter respect. In fact, in the Kalahari, a rabbi told us that the word pil, elephant in Hebrew, is the root of the verb pela, to wonder. Without the elephant we lose an essential pillar in the ability to wonder. With the elephant you are haunted and humbled for life. [more]

Butchering nature's titans: without the elephant 'we lose an essential pillar in the ability to wonder'

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