Elephantine Moment

Elephant conservation

Elephantine Moment

The East Hampton Star: July 12, 2017

To the Editor,

Not long ago our son, Lysander, 11, and I got stuck in more than six inches of sand in the middle of nowhere in Botswana. It was getting dark and our guide was on his way to camp when his back wh­eels got stuck. We tried large rocks, lifting the car with the heavy-duty jack, tying the car cable to a rock and pulling ourselves out, tying the cable to a tree, but the tree was almost at a right angle to the car and would not budge. We even thought of burying a tire below the sands in front of the car as anchor, but that last-resort technique would have necessitated much digging in hard sand and hours of digging.

After three hours of fiddling with the front wheel and realizing that we no longer had four-wheel capacity, we honked out to our camp, but to no avail.

Our guide walked on the sandy road with flashlight in hand trying to signal our camp about one kilometer away. He tried this several times but to no avail. It started to look like we were going to spend the night in our vehicle. A few hundred yards away, in the dead of night, a lion kill had occurred, and our guide was understandably nervous.

Finally, after looking around for some material, I found elephant ribs which Lysander had discovered. Why not try them under the wheels? Six ribs were put under the back wheel, and within minutes, after everything else had failed, we were able to move once again. What saved us were the body parts of a dead being, the monarch of the world, whose body and heart and mind we have maligned for centuries. It may seem a small incident, and indeed, in the great expanse of the outback, it was. But it was a symbolic lesson. Our elephant had probably died a natural death, but its bones served to salvage one night in our lives, a night full of predators. It is time humanity came together to save the body of the elephant.

In August 2011, in the tremendous “Agony and Ivory,” I convinced Vanity Fair to launch the biggest article ever on an endangered species. The article galvanized the world. The planet still lost 30 percent of its elephants, but countries mobilized to stop the rampant poaching. What we do now will determine the future of the greatest land mammal on earth and much of humanity’s future. If we can’t save the elephant, what on earth can we save?

To behold a behemoth on foot, a massive bull elephant, outside the protective armor of our vehicle in the Okavango is to tempt the fates, and also an act of supreme trust, some would say folly. Recently, our guide, who learned enormous lessons from his father, who had been a guide for 40 years, trusted us to behave and behold in wonder the titan of the world. We trusted the elephant, who, unlike his cousins in Tanzania or central Africa, had not undergone the trauma of the decimation that the ivory trade has unleashed on the African landscape. The elephant simply drank from a waterhole where his bachelor friend had been drinking and then methodically walked past us as if we were human ants, bystanders to the greatest terrestrial spectacle on the planet. The glance in the elephant’s eye was an unforgettable act of trust that said, “I know who you are, and I mean you no harm, if you do not defy me and break the peace between us.”

The earth exulted and the light of the world shone in his eye with the conscious power of the ultimate teacher whose lineage goes back 20 million generations. Words fail to exalt the great parameters of this encounter at less than 10 feet. We could have been targeted and reduced to pancakes, but in that glance was gelled the mutual consolidation of two species locked in a sentient armistice. In that eternal but brief moment lay the entire future of the world.

If the elephants recover from the trauma they have endured from the human species, there will be overpopulation and climate disruption they will have to deal with. Yes, poaching may be largely overcome, but our sheer numbers are overwhelming the life force. We witnessed a privilege of unbounded power. The elephantine moment, one where two species came face to face with brains of 100 billion neurons, accepted the other in trust, “We are both passengers on this earth. Let us abide by a truce larger than you or I.”

Many elephant populations, such as those in the Selous, are still in shock and traumatized after what has happened to them this decade, and their behavior reflects that unbelievable stress. We witnessed it firsthand as matriarchs trumpeted in anxiety and shook their heads before our presence. The destruction of their relatives in the tens of thousands is the same stress and madness that civilians have experienced in the Middle East.

Elie Wiesel, the first voice I turned to when I tried to summon a global citizen to get testimony about what is happening to the elephants, said there was no comparison with what we did in the concentration camps in World War II. With regard to what we are doing to the natural world, there is. And with all due respect to humans, the elephant calamity is as significant as anything we have done to ourselves. The difference being there are far fewer elephants, and without them, we lose the entire continent of Africa and much of Asia as well.

Lysander, who has been with elephants on many occasions, was respectful, awed, and yet serene as the elephant passed before us like a giant keeper and guardian of the outback. His faced glowed as if having seen an apparition and a deity. In the enormous fragility and power of that moment, time stood still. It was as if hope and belief and firmament were still possible. In that timeless glance we were reborn. Lysander turned to me and said, “ It is amazing they still trust us after everything we have done to them.”

Elephants may not trust us on a continent-wide scale, but the fact that some do, and see in each of us an individual, is a sign of tremendous hope.

But it is a fragile hope, and one we need to nurture. One answer for southern Africa is to consolidate the prospects of the gigantic Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Park, what would be the largest reserve on earth, the size of France. Money, infrastructure, tourism, and local participation in the largest park on the planet would go a long way to help the largest extant elephant population on the planet. There is certainly enough money and enough billionaires to put up the resources to ease the migration of animals and to ease the poverty that affects Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The rest is government engagement and will.

Elephants don’t recognize boundaries and they don’t have passports. They should be treated as global citizens and be given Appendix 1 maximum protection status across Africa. No more political games with the largest land mammal on earth. No more trophy-hunting of any kind. They have just gone through an enormous holocaust! In giving elephants a reprieve from a decade of slaughter and reversing the trail of tears we have imposed on the organic world, humanity will help itself from falling off the edge. Or else what one astronomer has called a crisis much bigger than World War I and World War II and the Great Depression combined, could become our final reckoning. The time to reverse course is now.

PHOTO: ©Lysander Christo

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