Dear Friend, Ally, Lords of the Earth

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

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.

“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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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)

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?

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.

Baby elephants with their mothers. (Barbara Angelakis)

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.

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.

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

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. 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.


Written by Cyril Christo

Cyril Christo is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He and his wife, Marie Wilkinson, have traveled extensively around the world. They have published several photography books exploring ecological and man-made challenges and endangered bioregions and species. The couple is currently working on a documentary film, “Walking Thunder: The Last Stand of the African Elephant,” which weaves a family’s personal journey in East Africa with indigenous people’s stories.


Read Romain Gary’s 1967 “Letter to an Elephant” here.


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  • Marlies Alpers Gabriel

    I would love to make use of this incredible piece as my personal Xmas letter as its filled with deeper conscious. I do feel the same should be spread wisely and far. Who is the author?

    • Danielle Underhill

      Hi Marlies! Thank you for taking the time to read this piece from Cyril Christo. We feel much the same way as you do about his deep words. Please feel free to share his letter with loved ones and happy holidays from us at IFE. -Danielle Underhill, IFE Blog Editor in Chief

  • Catherine Hammond

    Dear Cyril,

    Your words remind me of my days traveling in Africa, living among elephants, and how their very presence made me feel both happy and humble. Yet there are some very practical reasons to protect the species as well.

    African elephants are integral to the ecosystem. They clear the forest so the plains can exist. They either eat their way through an area or go on aggressive rampages, making space for new grasses to grow. When the grasses grow into bushes and trees again, the elephants plow them down again. In his new book, wildlife photographer Robert Ross, who studied the Selous from 2008 to 2014, says, “There has been a noticeable habitat change because of the loss of elephants. . . They’re not coming through the country as much. It’s returning to thicket. The elephants aren’t there anymore to keep those areas clear” (Burnett). He is right; without elephants, there would be fewer plains and fewer plains animals.

    Elephants also matter to the ecosystem because they create and maintain walking trails, clearing them of grass and bush as they go. These trails not only help the other species get around, but they are the lines that stop lightning fires from sweeping across the savanna. Of course, fire is a good thing when it clears land for new growth, but uncontrolled, unstoppable fire is not a good thing. Only elephants make such trails; without them, fire would ravage the land.

    Elephants are also important to the circle of life. Most importantly, they regenerate the soil as the greenery they uproot decomposes and returns nutrients to the ground. Elephant dung also spreads moisture, nutrients and plant seeds. Research shows that more than a dozen tree species, such as the Balanites, depend on elephants for seed dispersion. There are even some plants, such as the marula tree, whose seeds get ready to germinate only as they pass through the elephants’ digestive tract. Without the elephant, many plant species would suffer.

    Elephants also help other animals survive. In the beginning of the rainy season, the depressions made in the mud from the elephants’ footprints hold water for other animals to drink while they wait for more rain. During the dry season, elephants dig waterholes in the dry river beds. Elephants also sniff out and scratch open mineral licks, such as salt licks, which other animals need. Finally, the elephant’s digestive system softens nuts and seeds so baboons, birds and bats can break them open and eat them. Without elephants, many other animals would have a hard time getting the water, minerals and food they need. In fact, because of the recent elephant poaching and the resulting loss of wildlife, in 2014 UNESCO added the Selous to its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

    Elephants are also important because people can study them to find cures for human illnesses. Scientists have noticed that African elephants get cancer much less often than humans. They say African elephants “have at least 40 copies of genes that code for p53, the protein well known for its cancer-inhibiting properties,” whereas humans have only two copies of those genes (Muchangi). The senior author of the study says, “Nature has already figured out how to prevent cancer. It’s up to us to learn how different animals tackle the problem so we can adapt those strategies to prevent cancer in people” (Cookson).

    Another reason to protect elephants is that studying them may help us understand other animals, including ourselves. Elephants have sophisticated social systems; they understand mortality and mourn the dead; they have superior spatial awareness; and they communicate over long distances. It has also been shown that they can discern among human voices, languages and cultures; that their brains have more complex folds than any animal besides the whale; and that their brains have a more developed hippocampus (the brain region responsible for emotional awareness) than any other animal. Learning how elephants function could help us understand ourselves.

    Elephants are also important because they generate money in countries that need it. Hundreds of thousands of tourists go on photographic safaris hoping to see the “Big Five,” including elephant, lion, rhino, hippo and leopard. In Tanzania, photo-­tourism has recently surpassed hunting, now bringing in 17% of the GDP (“Press Environment”).

    Most importantly, regardless of whether the elephant is important to the ecosystem, to the circle of life, or to humans, the elephant species is important because it is a species, and nobody wants to see an entire species disappear.

    For sources, photos and more information, please go to

    Catherine Hammond
    Ann Arbor, MI

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