I can never forget the first elephant I saw. It was when I went to Tanzania (then Tanganyika) for the first time in 1967. I don't remember all the details now, only that I was being driven by the Park warden around the rim of the crater. Suddenly the car stopped and there, just off the road and feeding quietly on the lush vegetation, was a small group of elephants, three or four females and some youngsters. I could not count exactly, as there were others further among the trees.
We got out of the car and walked closer and I stood in wonder and in awe. For some 20 minutes we watched them, and then the whole group, the largest matriarch bringing up the rear, slowly wandered into the thick forest.
I have met many other elephants since then. When I was camping with Hugo van Lawick, my first husband, on the floor of the crater some years later, we spent many hours watching the elephants that frequented the forested areas. And later, in the Ruaha National Park, I became even more closely connected to individual elephants, such as the one the rangers named Rafiki (friend in Swahili) with her twin calves. And Rashidi, the oldest elephant I have ever seen. So ancient that his ears drooped, and the skin of his legs had sagged and was bunched around his ankles.
And then there was the time Iain Douglas Hamilton introduced me to his very favorite female, Virgo in Manyara National Park. As I followed him towards her, he told me to reach out, and she extended her trunk and blew gently on my fingers. What a magical moment.
Of course, most of my animal observations in Africa were of the chimpanzees of Gombe National Park, the species most like us in their biology and behavior. Chimpanzee brains are structured amazingly like our own, so it is hardly surprising that they are also highly intelligent. And like us, they have distinct personalities, minds capable of problem solving, and emotions such as contentment and sadness, anger and despair. And of course, they feel pain.
In fact, it was the in-depth understanding of chimpanzees that forced scientists to admit that there was no sharp line dividing us from them. That we were not, after all, the only thinking, feeling beings, unique and set apart from the rest. That the difference between us and other animals was of degree not of kind and that we were part of the amazing animal kingdom on Planet Earth.
Elephants are equally intelligent — and their memories are extraordinary. I can never forget the excitement, the joy of two individuals who had been cruelly parted for over 30 years, and who were reunited when the younger was brought to join the elder one at a sanctuary. It brought tears to the eyes of all who witnessed that moving reunion.
When I look back on my own times spent with elephants it is with a mixture of joy — and infinite sorrow. For the world I knew when I first arrived in Africa has changed. Forests have been razed and the human populations increased, moving farther and farther into the shrinking habitats of wildlife. Trophy hunters pay money to shoot the bull elephants with the biggest tusks — the very individuals who should be responsible for the genetic strength of future elephant populations. So that they can proudly mount the heads on their walls. And now, with the ever-increasing price of ivory, there is the terrible, devastating poaching.
True, more and more people are becoming involved with stopping the poaching on the ground in Africa. But increasingly, their lives are in danger. Rangers, trying bravely to protect the elephants in their parks, are too often shot in the course of duty. And those trying to implicate and deliver to justice those involved in the illegal trafficking, the illegal export of ivory to other countries, are sometimes involved in "unfortunate" lethal "accidents."
The future of these iconic and wonderful animals is at stake, and those fighting to save them need all the help they can get.
That is why Lords of the Earth is so important. It is a truly magnificent collection of Cyril Christo's and Marie Wilkinson's haunting black and white photographs not only of African elephants, but of Africa's indigenous peoples also. Along with the text by Cyril and Marie it is a profound study of these highly intelligent and social animals and the humans who have learned to live with them and revere them.
I hope this book will inspire others to join the fight on behalf of the elephants and the brave and dedicated people who are risking their lives to stop the killing, to bring the traffickers to justice.
Lords of the Earth: The Entwined Destiny of Wildlife and Humanity is a forthcoming book that explores the intimate relationships between local people and wildlife. According to Christo, like his recent documentary Walking Thunder: Ode to the African Elephant, the book underscores “how the other animals of this world are essential to our very identity, our souls and our very survival, something native people have known for countless millennia and which the dominant, technological society has forgotten. In this enormous time of the 6th extinction both the book we seek to publish and film are manifestos, prayers for saving what remains of Africa and the natural world. As a Samburu elder told us concerning elephants, ‘If we lose the elephants and the other animals, we will have nothing to return to. We will lose our minds.’ It is a lesson we should heed as we head into the next decade of life on earth.”