A Letter to the African Elephant

Cyril Christo Save our Elephants

A Letter to the African Elephant

In 1967, Romain Gary, that remarkable poet of the spirit, penned an address to you, the elephants of earth, of such stunning clarity and beauty; it is a prayer for life. It made one almost jealous of your great startling species, so many years ago. I was just a little boy then in Paris. My grandfather had known Gary and helped to liberate my home town. I did not know the fascists in WWII. I did not fly fighter planes to deliver us from tyranny. I did not liberate starving prisoners who suffered the torture and ignominy of the camps. I did not partake of the horrors of that time. I am of another time.

Our time has its terrors too, but today my son has walked amongst you and felt a joy unlike any on earth. His name is Lysander. And he can tell you, we need you more than ever in our species’ history. You see, he learned to walk and talk with the herds, inspired by the pageant of your kind parading before the great backdrop of Kilimanjaro. Then, a year later he returned and sang a song coming from the honesty and love and joy of a 2 year old.

Cyril Christo Save our Elephants

An elephant is pictured in Tsavo East National Park in southern Kenya on Jan 31, 2013. (Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images)

“A hundred animals are better than two!” Then he asked, “Why are elephants important daddy?” He will never be the same. Something of your soul and presence on this earth now inhabits his blood, his memory, his very soul. But since your friend Romain wrote his inimitable words, our species has utterly failed you. His words will long be remembered as an incantation to you, the elephant, who truly upholds the world.

Today I am writing for what remains of the 21st century. This time that has produced weapons that can annihilate all life on earth. A time when the Cold War between Russia and America has returned. A time when the seas are suffering thanks to the overheated industry of our machine-suffocated lives. And we are failing the life force. It is the time of the sixth extinction, and my head bows before this singular time in evolution.

Recently men of very small mind have been playing politics with your kind, you who are so much more coherent than we could ever hope to be. They trade in body parts, much as we made lampshades out of some of our own kind during WWII. Dear Friends, we have learned nothing since the war. Your future will dictate where we are heading on this delicate planet. We have played dice with your future, allowing ivory to be sold, allowing container shipments of tons of your teeth, your splendid curving swords, to flow from country to country as if you were an item to be sold on the open market.

I am sure, dear friend, that nowhere but on this small earth is there anything like you. We have decimated your kind for countless generations, for trinkets, for baubles, for meaningless impoverished articles that should shame our species. That is the hallmark of our time. And your end is in sight unless the bureaucrats and businessmen of this planet stop seeing you as a thing.

An elephant is pictured in Tsavo East National Park in southern Kenya on January 31, 2013. (Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images)

Ivory carvings and elephant tusks are placed in a pyre just before the first Cameroon ivory burn in Yaounde, Cameroon to highlight the need to halt the Ivory trade in order to save Africa’s elephants, on April 19. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Throughout your history your being fed us, you found water for us, your very place on earth enabled us to survive and we have treated you as something inert, as a thing without a soul, a slave on the open market of profiteers, for merchants, mercenaries and the criminal gangs of this time whose vision is just the molecular weight of fool’s gold. You will never forgive us, I am sure. Or if you should survive, if we finally find our proper place on earth, maybe you will.

You know dear brother, one of our truly dedicated poets of conscience saw one of you standing over the edge of a cliff in South Africa. And he saw a whale. And this man wondered if you and the whale were communicating, in some effortlessly, soundlessly magical capacity. Maybe we will reach maturity in time and save you before you fall off the cliff of time. The grey whales too were almost destroyed, almost lost forever. And then the whaling ban arrived just in time and their population came back. The whales go to the boats, and people reach out to them, and the whales reach out to people, and they are transformed forever as if in a baptism unique on earth. They were saved just in time, and they continue to swim in the open waters of this barely understood planet. You and your aquatic cousins form the two great brackets of existence.

We cannot long endure without you. This the whales know; that is why they come to touch us. They know what you know, that we need you much more than you need us. That the whales reached out to us is a miracle. As a researcher in Africa said, we will save the elephants through poetry, not science, through commitment and our emotional bond to you and the saving grace of what you, of all terrestrial mammals have brought to this dimension called life.

Cyril Christo Save the Elephants!

An elephant poses for a close-up. (Barbara Angelakis)

Dear Inimitable Comrade, we think we can find other life, a haven out there among the stars. I do not know if we will find even a single microbe among the planets so lost in space, let alone frogs, and birds, and whales, and tropical rainforests. But one thing I am certain, we will never find anything like you ever again. We think we can find salvation out there. Your immensity, your silent steps are the best friend humanity could ever have.

Lysander has heard the symphony of your immense trumpeting across the last free spaces of the world, and that is what my grandfather fought for so long ago. He knows, I know, that without you there will never be peace on this small planet, a humble planet surrounded by trillions of other galaxies.

Once when we heard the testimony of a young indigenous woman who honors the elephants in northern Kenya, a baby elephant came to our car and kissed the elephant insignia on the side of our vehicle. She recognized herself. Of course you know who you are. It is our species that does not yet know who it is, or as Lysander once said with all of his eight years, “We have landed on the moon but we have not yet landed on earth.”

Your family, dear friends, landed on earth 50 million years ago. You have undergone 20 million generations to become who you are. We will not survive without you. Of this I am sure. There were perhaps 5 million of you when my grandfather was born. Now, no more than a paltry 350,000. But what we haven’t calculated is the unfathomable suffering you have undergone as we detonated your cousins, sisters, mothers, fathers as we butchered you into near annihilation. What we cannot calculate is the unfathomable pain of your great elephantine mind that lives in such equipoise with the world. Or used to. The treachery, perfidy and onslaught cannot be qualified in numbers. The trauma you endure with our kind is beyond reckoning, beyond the algorithmic scale. More than 90% of you are gone forever. Where will you be in 20 years? A figment, a memory, a tear in the soul of man. Or will we allow you to reconstitute yourselves? The stress you have undergone is an earthquake in the fabric of time.

Dear Friend, you have changed us like no other species on this earth. Hannibal and Pyrrhus at the battle of Asculum used you against the Romans. Alexander at the battle of Guagamela was defeated in India by your forces. The Burmese needed you against the Japanese during WWII. And of course 6000 of you built the greatest temple on earth to devotion and to spirit, Angkor Wat. And still we persecute you, slay you in near unstoppable greed. You changed history and we obliterate you in seemingly endless waves. You are the great totem to desecration in our time. When will it cease?

Cyril Christo Elephant extinction

In this July 2014 photo, scientists with Great Elephant Census fly over Botswana, Africa during a survey of savanna elephants on the continent. (Great Elephant Census, Vulcan Inc. via AP)

Some are betting on your extinction, so that the trite remains of your teeth become more valuable in the market of the world. What will your tusks be worth then? They will only be daggers in what is left of our conscience. For we will no longer be men, but simulations of men. Lysander saw your teeth reduced to dust when your teeth were crushed, for those acting in a last desperate measure to say enough is enough. And he was the only child at that event to witness our species’ last desperate attempt to turn the tide.

Do not forget that some of us still marvel in front of the titanic grey of your being, you who are so allied to the clouds. Now the DNA of those teeth has wafted into the atmosphere of both hemispheres. It is remarkable that there are those who still do not know that you must be destroyed for your superb teeth, that they don’t just fall off. The dust of those teeth, your very being has entered our cells. Your execution is the equivalent of a slow nuclear detonation of the most inimitable species walking the earth.

Once, they say, you recognized the Buddha.

You were in musth, the Urdu word for mad. Your hormones were flowing, you were most unhappy, but slowly you calmed down and felt the force of the enlightened one, and you walked up to the great one and bowed before him as if recognizing the unique quality of his soul. Great friend, inestimable one, it is us who should bow before you, and soon, before it is too late. It is us who should be humbled by the great passage of your being on this earth. Once, en route to Africa, your homeland, there was a cover story in Time magazine that predicted the melding of the human mind and the machine, a singularity. But we have still not made the first steps towards understanding who you are. You already know yourself. But we have no idea who we are on this earth. We put mirrors in front of you thinking we can calculate your intelligence. You have known who you were for 50 million years. And to think we could lose you forever in less than 10.

We are but children before the astounding coherence of who you are. But one thing I do know, those who have honored you, the indigenous people of Africa, say that if we were to lose you, we would lose our minds. We would have nothing to return to. In many ways your being, what you stand for, is our original home. You are a walking paradise. We have not seen the great mystery and magic of your order. Instead, we are butchering you and trophy hunters continue to deplete your kind with the carcass of vanity that defines modern man. We count you in numbers and tally your kind and do not realize the continent of what we have already lost and are on the verge of losing forever.

We do not see that you are truly one of the pillars of the world. Dear Friend, we must stop your crucifixion and soon. Even Lysander, for the first march for another species in the history of our kind, a march for your species, said in front of the UN in impassioned plea, Do not do to elephants, what you don’t want them to do to you!” He knew, he was only eight!

I once spoke to a wise man in India having seen some of your cousins in Asia and I asked him what would happen if we lost another marvelous species, the tiger. He answered, “It would not matter because we would not have humanity anymore.” Of course it would matter for the tiger, as it would for you. For so long we have thought the world revolved around us. But in truth, it is partly around your being that the world turns. In India they knew your family upheld the four directions. Without you the planet will fall off the recognizable world. Or as a ranger told us when one of your orphans was taken care of in the great orphanage of Ithumba in Kenya said that “a world without elephants is a world without oxygen.” Dear Friend, I am running out of breath.

Cyril Christo Elephant Extinction

During a cruise down the Zambezi River, an army of fifty or so elephants plunges into the waters and swim, en masse, to a sandbar downstream. (Giannella M. Garrett)

Dear Brother, I am feeling faint from the loss of your kind. Without you there will be no humanity, no proper dawn, no wonder for children, for childhood ever again. The bureaucrats, the politicians who garner salaries in trading your kind will have guaranteed our perdition. Their special interests, their lonely financial faces have sold their souls to the traders of damnation. Many of us are fighting for your kind. Some of us bleed for your utter nobility. You transfix the life force and all life on earth knows that without you it will disappear. For you, as the Hindus knew are one of the key foundations of the world. Will we find more than gain from your bones? Will we find in time the ineffable, lustrous value of your passage on earth? The refuge for what constitutes life, the irretrievable mystery and irrefutable magic of which you are its most singular consort. Without you, our civilization will have no ballast. But your migration, alone among the sentient of the world helped us leave the cradle of man.

Now we must summon the force of your trumpeting spell and find the battle cry of your so towering enigma, of how you came to be, and salvage the depths of your likeness, or we shall cease to be fully human. What we have done to you beggars the stars themselves. Upon the curve of your back, there where the moon and sun occasionally find rest in the great furnace of the African sky, our destinies comingle. Dante said the gates of ivory represented false dreams. The blood we have spilt is the great deception and great tragedy of our time. We may think we can do without you, but we will no more be able to be without you, then being able to do without the sun and moon. For you are innocent and guileless and harbor multitudes of compassion we shall need in the coming years.

The time one of your great bulls helped one of ours, a Kikuyu woman give birth in the wild, by protecting her from predators, is proof of your inestimable stature.

Cyril Christo Elephant Extinction

Elephant in Africa. (guido da rozze/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

You, great friend, are the reminder of the calmness and peace we all yearn to be. Here is a story we must all remember. During the war, Lesematia, a Samburu, who so honored the elephant, fought with the English in the Kenyan army against the fascists in Ethiopia, and lost a leg. A generation later, back at home, he was walking in the late afternoon towards his uncle’s house on his crutches. Two lions saw that he was an easy target and closed in on him. Lesematia could do nothing but call on his great totem, the elephant. He sent out a prayer and within a few minutes three massive bulls came out of the bush and surrounded him and kept the lions at bay. They stayed with him all night until the next morning when the lions left and went back into the bush. The elephants had saved his life!

The Samburu clearly honor something that our smartphone, the asphyxiating galaxy of information that rotates around us, and money cannot give us.

Yes, we still have war zones to heal. We always have. In the current maelstrom the world mind is a global Ahab for which we have no cure. But there are saviours among us who will fight until your proper restitution. There are rangers who are giving their lives for you and the other species of this world, the lions the rhinos, the whales.

Today, at this late hour we must stop playing games with your kind. Laws need to be enforced, and we must stop trading your teeth for they are worthless without you, great jewel of Creation. We must also send out a prayer for your kind or mankind’s spirit will perish. You are a perfect sail of incomparable flesh, the last giant walking the face of the earth. You are not just another animal; you are the mind of nature, a peer, a fellow citizen on this planet and we will not, must not, cannot forsake you.


Dear Elephant, Sir:
You will probably wonder, reading this letter, what could have prompted a zoological specimen so deeply preoccupied with the future of his own species, to write it. The reason of course, is self-preservation. For a long time now I have had the feeling that our destinies are linked. In these perilous days of “the balance of terror,” of overkill and estimates telling how many of us could hope to survive a nuclear holocaust, it is only natural that my thoughts should turn to you.

In my eyes, dear Elephant, sir, you represent to perfection everything that is threatened today with extinction in the name of progress, efficiency, ideology, materialism, or even reason, for a certain abstract, inhuman use of reason and logic are becoming more and more allies of our murderous folly. It seems clear today that we have been merely doing to other species, and to yours in the first place, what we are on the verge of doing to ourselves.

We met for the first time almost a century ago in my nursery. We shared the same bed for many years, and I never went to sleep without kissing your trunk and then holding you tightly in my arms, until the day came when my mother took you away, telling me, with a certain absence of logic, that I was a big boy now and therefore could no longer have an elephant for a pet. Psychologists will no doubt say that my “fixation” on elephants goes back to that painful moment of separation, and that my longing for your company is actually a nostalgia for my long gone innocence and childhood. And, indeed, you are precisely that in my eyes: a symbol of purity, a dream of paradise lost, a yearning for the impossible, of man and beast living peacefully together.

Years later, somewhere in Sudan, we met again.

I was returning from a bombing mission over Ethiopia, and brought down my damaged plane south of Khartoum, on the western bank of the Nile. I walked for three days to reach water and to have the most satisfying drink of my life, thus, as it turned out later, contracting typhoid and almost dying. You appeared before me among some meager acacia trees, and at first I thought I was a victim of hallucination. For you were red, dark red, from trunk to tail, and the sight of a red elephant sitting on his rear end and purring made my hair stand on end. Yes, you were purring. I have learned since then that this deep rumbling is a sign of satisfaction, and I suppose the bark of the tree you were eating was particularly delicious. It took me some time to realize that you were red from wallowing in the mud and that meant the proximity of water. I edged forward, and you became aware of my presence. You perked up your ears, and your head seemed to triple in size, while your whole mountain of a body disappeared behind those suddenly hoisted sails. You were no more than 60 or 70 yards from me and I could not only see your eyes but feel them, as if my stomach had eyes of its own. I was too weak to run. Besides, my exhaustion, fever and thirst were greater than my fear. I therefore did the only thing that I could do under the circumstances: I gave up. I have given up quite a few times, during the war, closing my eyes and waiting for death, and each time I have been given a medal for bravery.

When I opened my eyes again, you were asleep. I suppose you had not seen me or had taken one look at me and became overcome with boredom. Anyway, you were standing there, your trunk limp, yours ears collapsed, your eyes closed, and I remember that tears came to my eyes. I was seized by an almost irresistible urge to come close to you, to press your trunk against me, to huddle against your hide, and there, fully protected, to sleep peacefully forever. The strangest feeling came over me: I knew it was my mother who had sent you. She had relented at last and had given you back to me.

I took a step in your direction then another. … For a man as utterly tired as I was, there was something strangely reassuring about your huge, rocklike sight. I knew that if I cold touch you, caress you, lean against you, you would give me some of your life force. It was one of those moments when a man needs so much energy and so much strength to overcome and to prevail that he thinks of God. I have never been able to raise my eyes that high, and so I stop at elephants.

I was quite close to you when I stumbled and fell. And then it happened. The earth shook under me and the most terrifying sound of a thousand donkeys braying at once with a lion’s voice turned my heart into a captive grasshopper. As a matter of fact, I screamed too, and my yell had all the frightening strength of a two-month-old baby. The next thing I knew I was running like a champion rabbit across the clearing, yelling at the tops of my lung, and it seemed that some of your strength had indeed been transmitted to me, for never has a half-dead man come to life quicker and run faster. As a matter of fact, we both were running, although in opposite directions. You were trumpeting away and I was shrieking away with the voice of blind fear, and as I needed all my energy and could not waste any of it on controlling all of my muscles … but the least said about that the better. Besides, one has to pay something for one’s bravery. After all, I had scared an elephant.

We never met again, and yet in our thwarted, restricted, controlled, indexed and repressed existence, the echo of your irrepressible thundering march through the open spaces of Africa keeps reaching me, awakening a confused longing. It sounds triumphantly like the end of acceptance and servitude, an echo of limitless freedom that has haunted our soul since the beginning of time.

I hope you won’t consider me discourteous if I tell you that your size, strength and craving for unrestricted existence make you quite obviously anachronistic. You’re therefore considered as incompatible with modern times, and for all of us who are sick and tired of our polluted cities and even more polluted minds, your colossal presence and the fact of your survival against all odds, acts as a God-sent reassurance. Everything is not yet lost, the last hope of freedom has not yet vanished completely from this earth and, who knows, if we stop destroying elephants and save them from extinction, we may yet succeed in protecting our own species from our destructive enterprises as well.

If Man shows himself capable of respect for life in its hugest and most cumbersome form – now, now, don’t flip your ears and raise your trunk angrily, no insult intended – then a chance remains that China is not pointing the way to our future, and that other cumbersome, clumsy prehistoric monster, individual man, will somehow manage to survive.

Years ago, I met a Frenchman who had devoted himself body and soul to the defence of the African elephant. Somewhere within the rolling green sea of what was known as Tchad territory, under the stars that always seem to shine brighter when a man’s voice manages to rise higher than his solitude, he told me:
“Dogs are not enough. People never felt more lost, more lonely in this man-made world. They need company, a stronger, bigger company than ever. Something that can really stand up to it all. Dogs aren’t enough, what we need is elephants.”

And who knows? We may even need a companion infinitely bigger and more powerful than that. I can almost see an ironic twinkle in your eyes as you read my letter. And no doubt you prick your ears, deeply mistrustful of every human sound. Have they ever told you that your ear has almost exactly the shape of the African continent? Your gray, rocklike mass has the very color and texture of Mother Earth herself. There is something incongruous and almost girlish about your eyelashes, and your rump is that of a monstrous puppy.

For thousand years you have been hunted for meat and ivory, but it is civilized man who has invented killing you for pleasure and trophy. Everything that is frightened, frustrated, weak and insecure in us seems to find a sick comfort in killing the most powerful of all earth’s creatures. This wanton act brings the kind of “virile” reassurance that casts a strange light on the nature of our virility.

There are those, of course, who say you are useless, that you destroy crops in a land where starvation is rampant, that mankind has enough problems taking care of itself, without being expected to burden itself with elephants, They are saying, in fact, that you are luxury, that we can no longer afford you. Thus is exactly the kind of argument every totalitarian regime from Stalin and Hitler to Mao uses to prove that a truly “progressive” society cannot be expected to afford the luxury of individual freedom. Human rights are elephants, too. The right of dissent, of independent thinking, the right to oppose and to challenge authority can very easily be throttled and repressed in the name of necessity.

In a German prison camp, during the last world war, you played, Elephant, sir, a lifesaving role. Locked behind the barbed wires we would think of the elephant herds thundering across the endless plains of Africa, and the image of such an irresistible liberty helped us to survive. If the world can no longer afford the luxury of natural beauty, then it will soon be overcome and destroyed by its own ugliness. I myself feel deeply that the fate of Man, and his dignity, are at stake whenever the earth’s natural splendors are threatened with extinction.

The task of remaining human seems at times almost overwhelming. And yet it is essential that we should shoulder on our backbreaking walk toward the unknown a supplementary burden: the burden of elephants. There is no doubt that in the name of total rationalism you should be destroyed, leaving all the room to us on this overpopulated planet. Neither can there be any doubt that your disappearance will mean the beginning of an entirely man-made world. But let me tell you this, old friend: in an entirely man-made world, there can be no room for man either. All that will be left of us are robots. We are not and could never be our own creation. We are forever condemned to be part of a mystery that neither logic nor imagination can fathom, and your presence among us carries a resonance that cannot be accounted for in terms of science or reason, but only in terms of awe, wonder and reverence.

You are our last innocence.

I know only too well that by taking your side – or is it merely my own? – I shall no doubt be labeled a conservative, or even a reactionary, a “monster” belonging to another and, it seems, prehistorical era: that of liberalism. I willingly accept the label, in a time when the new spiritual guide of French “progressive” youth, the philosopher Michel Foucault, has announced that not merely God but Man himself, the Humanist’s Man, is dead and done with forever.

And so, dear Elephant, sir, we are finding ourselves, you and I, in the same boat, pushed by the same powerful wind of total rationalism toward oblivion. In a truly materialistic and realistic society, poets, writers, artists, dreamers and elephants are a mere nuisance.

I remember an old chant sung by the boatsmen of the Chari River in Central Africa:

We shall kill the great elephant.
We shall eat the great elephant
We shall enter into his belly
Eat his heart and liver . . .

Doesn’t it sound strangely like a song of the “red guards” of Mao Tse-Tung’s “cultural revolution”? They announce almost daily their intention of destroying the Western culture, that old “decadent” elephant and all of its Beethovens, Mozarts, Spinozas and Cezannes to mention only a few of the unspeakable “monsters”. In an interview with André Malraux quoted by the latter in his Anti-Memoires, Nehru told the great writer that if he ever went to Peking again, he would take an elephant with him, as a gift to Mao, for elephants are something China has never known and is now missing sadly. And it is true that your absence is conspicuous and ominous in the new Red totalitarian nightmare. You are, dear Elephant sir, the last individual.

Your very devoted friend,
Romain Gary

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