If We Want to Save the Planet, We Have to Save the Elephants

The elephant in the room at Davos was actually an elephant.

When CEOs and business leaders arrived in the isolated Swiss town, climate change was on the table. But the absence of conversations about elephants and global biodiversity—crucial components of our ecosystems—were glaring inconsistencies in what has become a failing climate change narrative.

Elephants and countless other species are now being impacted by serious drought in Africa and rising temperatures throughout Asia. Twenty-five years ago, my wife Marie and I started asking tribal elders on five continents about climate change. What we discovered was concerning: The 11-year drought cycle had changed. Now, droughts happen every few years. Every ecosystem on earth is threatened like never before.

PER Biodiversity BANNER
Cyril Christo

My parents, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, spoke at Davos in the 1970s. The optimism that once filled those rooms has long been replaced by a pro-business cynicism. But it is more than that: These gatherings have become detached from their roots and far-removed from the conservation practices rooted in Indigenous communities, people who have not forgotten their original instruction, which is to take care of the planet.

The bond between animals and humans goes back to our beginnings as a species. Elephants have even historically played a semi-mythical role in different African and Asian societies, including the Maasai, Himba and Ndorobo cultures, as well as most regions in Asia. We have heard countless stories which underscore our indebtedness to the world's animal species, all of which are shared in our latest film, Walking Thunder: Ode to the African Elephant.

Marie and I, as well as our son Lysander, have documented the plight of elephants over the past 17 years. And even though ivory was banned in 1989, Africa has still lost over 130,000 elephants, or as much as half its population over the last decade.

As we tend to forget, elephants are ecosystem engineers, and our fate is inextricably linked to their survival.

In Gabon, elephants gnaw on smaller trees, enabling the larger ones that support the tropical canopy to reach tremendous heights. By causing breaches in the forest canopy, this action encourages the growth of new flora by allowing more light to reach the forest floor. This then adds to the overall health and diversity of the forest by giving other species in the ecosystem sustenance and refuge.

But all of this is threatened. In the deep woods of Congo, where you can find forest elephants and 100,000 rare gorillas, habitat loss and poaching have made them critically endangered species. And in the second largest rainforest on earth, the Congo rainforest, the giant French oil group, Total, has sights set on making the oil find of the century. Distressingly, similar initiatives are being planned in Namibia and Botswana, where half the world's remaining elephant populations reside.

Drilling in this ecosystem would be a time bomb of unimaginable proportions. How, after the COP21 Paris Climate Accord, can humanity continue to think in these terms—and if not for the environment, what about the people who live there? After all, native peoples, about 5 percent of the world's population, are custodians of over 80 percent of the world's biodiversity. Yet everywhere they are imperiled, imprisoned or killed, when they risk speaking out against climate change.

What we need is to make sure events like Davos, and summits like COP, are used as safe spaces for conversations that matter. Conservation-minded thinking must be taught across the business world to ensure sustainable practices are implemented globally. Tending to our economies and our societies are important, but we must do the same for the life force of the planet.

This also means collectively lending support to signs of progress. In December, policymakers and leaders at COP15 signed yet another historic agreement to fight biodiversity loss, restore ecosystems and protect Indigenous rights. And COP27 hailed the launch of the African Carbon Markets Initiative which aims to make climate finance available for African countries.

Further, more projects are being launched which target grassroots and Indigenous networks across the Global South. For example, the global interfaith NGO Faith For Our Planet is leveraging active and strong global faith networks to revolutionize climate action from the ground up. Recently FFOP, which is chaired by the Muslim World League's Dr. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, hosted 30 young climate activists at its first Youth Interfaith Fellowship program at Duke University.

But where are these stories, these narratives, these people, at places like Davos, where so many other big issues are discussed?

I am reminded of a story Liberian elder Christian Bethelson once told me. When he was a solider in Liberia's civil war, he found a mother elephant and calf in a region where he had never seen elephants before. Dealing with the traumas of combat, it was an omen and a lifeline. He put down his gun and never picked it up again.

The extinction of elephants is no longer an impossibility. Already, thousands of others species are being lost. A complete overhaul of social and political thinking is needed to sustain not only ecosystems worldwide, but also human life on the planet. As one Samburu elder in northern Kenya told us, "Without the elephant and the other species, we will have nothing to return to. All that will be left is to kill ourselves."

Now is the time for humanity to salvage what is left of the earth. We have little time left.

Cyril Christo is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and animal rights activist. He was nominated for an Oscar for a documentary film he worked on in the 1980s. He and his wife, Marie Wilkinson, have traveled across the globe documenting the plight of animals in Africa and elsewhere. They have written multiple books. Their new documentary Walking Thunder: Ode to the African Elephant comes out later this year. They live in Santa Fe, New Mexico.