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Documenting the African elephant’s ‘last stand’: Q&A with filmmakers Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

  • “Walking Thunder,” a film by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson, tracks elephants across Africa.
  • The couple’s son, Lysander, guides viewers through his discovery, first of the elephants and peoples of Africa, and then of the threats they face.
  • Christo calls the film a “prayer” for the species.

“Walking Thunder” can feel like a family trip around the continent of Africa — if your parents were award-winning photographers and explorers. The mesmerizing film about the African elephant by husband-and-wife team Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson basks in wide-open landscapes, intimate conversations with Africa’s indigenous herders and hunters, and haunting, close-up stares from the largest living land animal on Earth.

But the film is really about Lysander, Christo and Wilkinson’s son, and we see much of the story through his eyes. He’s our guide as the family learns of the complex relationship that the Samburu, the Maasai and the Waliangulu peoples of East Africa have with the elephant. Even early on — the film draws from more than a decade and a half of footage — just as Lysander is beginning to walk and talk, his insatiable curiosity about elephants shifts the perspective that one might expect from a documentary on African wildlife.

We soon discover with Lysander the dangers that elephants everywhere face, and he and his parents wrestle with the prospect of losing them forever. Even as governments around the world take strides toward ending the ivory trade, as China and the United Kingdom have done, poaching to supply tusks mostly to Asian markets continues. Some 20,000 elephants fall to poachers’ weapons each year, according to WWF, and that’s just in Africa. The crisis has spilled beyond its shores, with illegal hunting of even the world’s smallest elephants in Borneo. And recent evidence confirms that poachers are also going after Asian elephants for their skins, likely for food and medicine markets in China.

As only a child can, Lysander boils down a complex problem with many front lines to a simple solution: Stop killing elephants.

“[P]eople hunt to decorate their houses. It’s not important to decorate your house,” he says at the age of 6. “The important thing is to live.”

Mongabay caught up with Cyril Christo from his home in the southwestern United States to talk about “Walking Thunder” and the issues it deals with.

A young African lion. Image by Lysander Christo.

You mentioned that this film was a prayer. What did you mean by that?

When we started interviewing elders and tribal people in Africa, the Southwest of the U.S., Australia and the Amazon, we had no idea we would make a film. Marie and I were most concerned about impending climate changes and the effects of globalization on local communities and their ecology.

Our film is a prayer because it is an extended testimony about why animals, elephants and nature should matter to us all. It is not meant as a comprehensive study or documentation of a single event. It is less about facts than about fellowship. It does not examine the workings of the ivory trade or wildlife crime syndicates. That has been done. “Walking Thunder” is meant as a journey and an honoring of the life force, both human and non-human, especially in Africa, but by extension, [of] tribal people and species everywhere.

“Walking Thunder” started to coalesce around [our son] Lysander because it is his future that was being formed. And then in 2009-2010, when our book of the same title came out, we started to learn about the ivory trade starting up again.

“Walking Thunder” is a prayer because it is a concerted call to conscience, for parents, for those of us who have ever been children, to salvage not just beauty but the reason for us to be on this planet, which is to be in fellowship with not just other humans but our fellow creatures, [which are] critical for the future of earth. As we have entered the Anthropocene, many experts agree that species biodiversity and extinction may [be] even more significant than climate change. Paul Shepard, the inimitable ecologist [who wrote] “The Others: How Animals Made Us Human” in 1996, said of the other animals, “We will save them, if at all, because without them, we are lost.”

We convinced Vanity Fair to run the biggest article of our time, “Agony and Ivory,” by Alex Shoumatoff [in] August 2011, which went viral and which galvanized the world. No one else in the media at the time was remotely interested. The world responded, but over the next seven years, we still lost a third of the world’s elephants! Over 130,000 individuals! That article, a landmark, was also a prayer to conscience. “Walking Thunder” is essentially an exploration, a journey that stems less from fact than from the impact we [are] having on our own soul and by extension nature. The film is a plea to salvation while we still have some time. It is a prayer because it is meant as a way forward, a way to retrieve our sanity.

An African elephant covering itself in dust. Image by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.

The title comes from a previous book that you and Marie published, right? What is the significance of the title, “Walking Thunder”?

We published “Walking Thunder: In the Footsteps of the African Elephant” in 2009. To find a title that hinted at a larger way of relating to the elephant in a more than rational way was not easy. I had talked to Katy Payne, whose wonderful book “Silent Thunder” in 1998 underscores the unique discovery she made that elephants use infrasonic sounds, sounds below the range of human hearing to communicate. Naturally, we could not use her title, but I wanted to use the word thunder because when elephants trumpet it feels as [if] the clouds, the earth has just moved. It is an exclamation pointing to creation saying, “I am here!”

The film opens with a quote from French novelist Romain Gary, talking about the power of seeing elephants for the first time. Is that how you felt when you first saw elephants?

The first time elephants appeared to [me and] Marie was in Lake Manyara [National Park in] Tanzania, and the lake’s edge made the Edenic landscape utterly mesmerizing. Gary’s thoughts are the most eloquent of the 20th century, and they mark a man who fought against fascism and knew about the evils of World War II. So when he rhapsodized about elephants, it is from someone who was fighting for freedom. He understood that elephants were the last individuals. In Manyara, the gem-like quality of the water seduces amidst the luxuriance of the foliage. Tree-climbing lions called out from above. The beauty of Tanzania’s vastness included close to 150,000 elephants then. So the recent loss of over 60 percent of Tanzania’s total [elephant population] is fantastically sad. In Gary’s time, Africa may have had over 5 million elephants.

It is a wonder to behold them each and every time as if they were an apparition. But if we are not very careful, they may become nothing more than a memory. Their population is already a figment of their former selves and the human mist everywhere pervades the last sanctuaries.

China may have shut its ivory market a few months ago, but the black market continues. The joy and wonder Lysander experienced has certainly changed.

Elephants in East Africa. Image by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.

Much of the film is told from Lysander’s perspective. That seems like an intensely personal choice to track his growth alongside the elephants and the people you interact with. How did you make the decision to have him as a guide for the viewers?

When we started interviewing elders, we did not yet have Lysander. Changing rainfall patterns and climate change in Africa and elsewhere were our main concerns. Before he was one [year old], we took Lysander to the Arctic. He would return several times later because we needed to witness the roof of the world [and] the fragility of the ice and have Lysander be touched by the elemental realities.

Lysander has been a guide for our priorities since he was born and we knew that Africa would be able to open up channels one did not get in the so-called “first world.” The first steps of pure innocence in East Africa, the photo of him being held by Rakita, a member of the Ndorobo tribe, a clan of the Maasai with his mouth open looking up at the sky in total awe, opens our film and informs much of the discoveries that we have shared with him. Lysander’s discoveries do not have to be in Africa. They could be in acknowledging the coyotes in our backyards and the birds and butterflies everywhere. But we have to acknowledge them and their habitats.

In many ways, he’s living a childhood fantasy that many of us had: to spend so much time among the animals and people of Africa. And yet, pretty quickly, he becomes aware of the struggles that elephants face. How has he dealt with that?

Well, Lysander misses Africa so much that he can’t always respond to the overwhelming reality of what has happened to the elephants, although the crisis has taken up most of his life. He knows humanity is to blame for untold horrors and cannot forgive our species for what we have done to the wild and why any great being is killed for a few pounds of essentially worthless teeth. He is saddened by what we are capable of. In terms of protecting elephants, Lysander once wrote, “If they have to fence off elephants, fence off the whole of Africa.” Instinctively, intuitively, Lysander knew from an early age that elephants meant freedom. Lysander once said, “We have landed on the moon, but we haven’t landed on Earth yet.” That is perhaps his most eloquent line because it is not bitter and resentful towards the human species but affirms that, while we can aim for the stars, our real place is here on earth, which is what the Native peoples of the Southwest [of the United States] where we live have been telling the dominant society for hundreds of years.

He knows that poaching is criminal, that trophy hunting is an aberration because it is not done for survival and that it is severely affecting the genetic pool of such species as lions. In the film, when he was just 6 [years old], Lysander says, “The European[s] and Americans and other people hunt to decorate their houses. It’s not important to decorate your house. The important thing is to live.”

A former elephant hunter in East Africa. Image by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.

One of the most poignant scenes of the film involves Lysander’s discovery of a skeleton along with a set of tusks, but at the end of the scene he says he hasn’t found another set of tusks lying out in the open like that since then. Can you talk about the changes you’ve seen in the threats to elephants in the 12 years of your son’s life and the 18 years that you gathered material for this film?

In 2010, the world had not really understood the magnitude of what was recurring, the second phase of the elephant slaughter in less than a generation. When we went to the Selous [Game Reserve], the largest reserve in Africa in southern Tanzania in 2013, nobody could yet fathom that over 60 percent of Tanzania’s elephants had been sacrificed to the [altar] of greed. One is told not to ask too many questions from rangers, that one can get in trouble with the authorities. Tanzania has so much to be proud of with her people and natural wonders including the Serengeti. We were introduced to the President and met someone working for TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks Authority) about poaching, and he denied any crisis with elephants. Rangers we met in the Serengeti admitted there was a poaching problem but few in the media understood the scale of the problem. Hopefully, Tanzania will be able to increase its [elephant] population now that it is has identified the poaching menace and the ivory traders.

Tensions between elephants and human settlements have started to become daily occurrences in India due to their enormous populations, and of course pastoralists like the Maasai and Samburu who need rangeland have been coming into greater conflict with elephants whose normal migration paths are being blocked or settled. The stress level we encountered in the Selous was of elephants who were extremely wary of humans, waving their heads as if to say, “Stay away, you are a menace and threat to our kind.” It was very disconcerting and stressful for them. We had spent days looking for elephants, and our first meeting was one of fear and apprehension. We have committed a grave injustice to the elephant mind across the continent.

At one point in the film, you talk about film as evidence. There seems to be something wistful about that statement, as if there’s an urgency to gather proof that animals like elephants exist. Is that the way you intended that remark?

The film is meant as a journey and more than just a documentation. It is meant as a gathering for truth and a reminder of all that we should care about on this planet. One segment we did not use was when a baby elephant left its mother and came to our car and kissed the elephant drawing on the side of our vehicle as if to acknowledge who she was! She obviously knew and recognized herself. Maybe she was prompted to say hello to Lysander who was 9 [years old] at the time. But as a conscious being, she knew who she was. The question is, do we know who we are anymore?

We, the so-called dominant society, are the only ones who don’t know because we are so insecure about our place on earth. We are documentarians who are parents, who wanted to share in the absolute marvel of why nature matters.

Lions in the grass. Image by Lysander Christo.

The film also focuses on the intense and complicated relationship that local peoples have with the elephants that they live near. In some cases, as with the Samburu, it appears deeply reverential. In others, as with the Maasai, there seems to be respect, but also tension and fear. Can you talk about the challenge of trying to understand the complexities of these long shared histories?

That is one of the central questions for conservation today because it calls into question entire modalities of relating to nature [that] modern man has lost touch with. Years ago, we were told stories of young Maasai children playing with elephants, walking amongst them as if they were just part of the extended family. The young Maasai sometimes would try to get fruit from certain trees, and they would be thwarted by baboons. [But] then the elephants would shoo away the baboons who were rather feisty, to help the children. There was a different way of relating entirely to the larger world.

Different from the pastoralist ethos of the Maasai, Samburu or Pokot, the Waliangulu elephant hunters depended on elephant meat to survive but were equally respectful of the human-elephant bond. They only took what they needed. Hunters were allowed only a certain number of elephants throughout their lifetime; otherwise they would get spiritually sick. One of our favorite guides in all Africa, Koni, explained:

“That comes from greediness of money and lack of spirit from the earth. In the old days, we didn’t know about the tusks, the only thing we needed was meat not tusks. Somebody who gave you meat from the elephant was a friend. By keeping the elephant, we keep the bond between us and our ancestors. The spirit of our ancestors lives in the elephants. In the old days the Arab could send other tribes called Garama found on the coast, those were the ones who could take the tusks. Because they could keep cows, sheep and goats and because they could trade tusks for the oil of the sheep. That’s how they lived. The Waliangulu never knew tusks were being taken to sell; they knew that tusks were made into necklaces but not that they were worthy of any money.

“We have one belief, that if you killed a lot of elephants, when you reached a certain number you will start shaking your legs and your body all the time for no reason … you will be running mad automatically … you start talking to yourself because you will have gone beyond the limit number you are supposed to kill. We believe the elephant’s spirit needs revenge and by avenging themselves the spirits are making you mad!

“The Waliangulu also [believe] that even after the death of the elephant those who killed more elephants than they were allowed, they are already mad, the very old men, even to date, they are out of their minds. They say we killed elephants, look at how we are, please [stop] killing, you continue killing you will be like us or even worse than us. We have learned a lesson. We did it, we celebrated, but today we are crying! All of them stopped killing elephants, they don’t even want to see anybody else killing elephants.

“What spirit can we put in people’s heart that they can stop buying ivory?”

I asked Koni what would happen if we lost the elephant in 2014. “That would affect all Kenyans [and] the wildlife, including elephants. If they are all being poached and killed, the tourism sector will be finished, and many Kenyans with their dependence on the tourism industry,” he said.

I asked Pacquo, a Samburu elder, about humanity’s future if we lost the greatest land mammal on earth: “People too will be finished. There will be nothing to return to. The only thing left will be to kill [one] another. We will lose our minds.”

An elephant family on the move. Image by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.

Is the public missing something about the role that indigenous groups can and perhaps should be playing in conservation? If so, what do we need to do to encourage that?

The world’s mega-diverse regions are all places where indigenous people are trying to survive and hold [on] to their world. Their economies were self-sustaining and regenerative before the onslaught of [the] gross domestic product and the folly of perpetual growth unleashed the juggernaut of the modern economy. The ones who have profited from this globalized economy need to help sustain the livelihood of those bioregions for the next seven generations, for their children’s sake, for the sake of the future of life on earth.

When certain conservation groups violate indigenous groups such as the Batwa pygmies in Central Africa all in the name of conservation, that is a human rights violation and this also devastates the ecology of the region. Who on earth knows more about caring for animals and plants than its indigenous groups? We worry about the future of the forest elephants. If we took care of the pygmies, wouldn’t the forest elephants have a better chance of surviving? We plunder the Congo for gold and coltan, a material used in our cell phones, and wonder how tens of thousands of women get raped every year. Shouldn’t the modern world invest in the future of the second-largest rainforest on earth rather stripping it of its lumber for industrialists in Europe, America, Canada and Japan?

Koni, our Waliangulu friend, summarizes the elephant’s place in the human heart:

“What spirit can we put in people’s heart that they can stop buying ivory? The spirit I would like to put into people’s heart is the same heart and spirit that is from my family. I am asking peoples to bring the heart of their ancestors and bring it to themselves and know that our ancestors lived in peace and harmony with these elephants.”

What is the role of indigenous peoples, as it stands now and as it might be in the future, in tackling the poaching crisis?

In the Hands Off Our Elephants movement, local people everywhere made Kenya the most vocal and successful country in limiting the poaching onslaught. Native people have the chance right now to save the tiger, as they are trying to do in Bhutan and Nepal in tandem with conservation and law officials. They are standing up to the pillaging of the jungle in the Amazon and elsewhere. But two or more activists are being killed every week to save the environment. Many of them native people. Paul Ehrlich wrote a piece in The Guardian emphasizing that civilization has two decades before collapse.

A film is a film, but if it can add to the dialogue of conservation, activism, and beauty that is the fabric of Africa, we will have attained our goal. We need to speak out more and invite multitudes to join in the fight for what is left of the planet and this century.

The eye of an African elephant. Image by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.

What else would you like people to know about your work with the peoples and wildlife of Africa?

Alone amongst the continents, Isak Dinesen wrote, “Africa will teach it to you that God and the Devil are one.” In our first book [Lost Africa: The Eyes of Origin], we listened to elders voice their concerns about climate change and the ravages of globalization are still upon us. Foreign investment in Africa, particularly from China, [is] coming at a great cost. Oil exploration, lumber extraction, such as that which threatens the Selous, and the bushmeat trade menace the rainforests across the continent. Many peoples are losing their connection to the earth and its animals upon which folklore, myth and their connection to the ancestors [revolve]. Animals, which were considered as messengers and intermediaries from the world of the spirits, are being threatened as never before. The bedrock of human origins, the anima and organic tapestry invested in life’s myriad forms incarnates a much more integral and coherent relationship to existence than the mesmerizing yet shallow network of the computer generated reality that so dominates our lives.

In Africa our connection with the larger foundation of who we are in the world is unique on earth. It is not a more primitive continent. Africa is still a place where humanity’s anchor to its past provides a millennia-old looking glass into prehistory and the organic template that formed us. After the devastating wars of the 19th century, Europe saw fit to turn to and carve up the second-largest continent, just as the Industrial Revolution was exploding and the great explorers of the Victorian Age were exploring its deepest secrets. It is no coincidence that Africa provided a refuge, a little[-known] alien planet in the mind of modern man. Now China has been added to the mix and continues to carve it up for the “benefits” of the capitalist juggernaut. The search for oil in the great lakes region of Africa, specifically in the Virunga [mountains], where the British-based oil company Soco is looking to dig for reserves in fragile mountain gorilla habitat, is indicative [of] how ruthless modern man’s lust for commodities has become.

In the recent second phase of the elephant slaughter that took hold around the time of the global economic recession in 2008, some in China saw fit to make ivory emblematic of their new[found] status in society. The Chinese demand for ivory [and] the Vietnamese demand for rhino horn have ravaged what is left of an imponderable continent. The hunger for lion bones in Laos and Vietnam desecrates the lion across the continent as well as [the] tiger across Asia. What the economic Moloch of modern industrial society has done in the last decade is to eradicate much of what was once the great miracle of the world — Africa’s wildlife.

Where can people see this film?

Hopefully in as many venues as possible, and we hope to bring it to Africa soon.

Lysander Christo photographing giraffes. Image by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.

This interview has been edited for style and length. Read the full transcript edited only for style.

Banner image of African elephants by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson.

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon