By Cyril Christo, Opinion Contributor / The Hill
“Today you say that elephants are archaic and cumbersome, that they interfere with roads and telegraph poles, and tomorrow you’ll begin to say that human rights are obsolete and cumbersome, that they interfere with progress, and the temptation will be so great to let them fall by the road and not to burden ourselves with that extra load. And in the end man himself will become in your eyes a clumsy luxury, an archaic survival from the past, and you’ll dispense with him too, and the only thing left will be total efficiency and universal slavery and man himself will disappear under the weight of his material achievement.” —Romain Gary, “The Roots of Heaven” 1958
My grandfather Jacques de Guillebon and the 2nd armored division helped liberate Paris from the Germans on August 24, 1944. A few years later he befriended the remarkable writer Romain Gary. One fought to liberate the world from Fascism and the other wrote a book, “The Roots of Heaven,” in 1958, so revelatory in its scope that it bears singular witness to the crisis of humanity and our depleted relationship to Nature like no other book of the 20th century. There is no more sublime a title in all of literature. Its main hero, Morel, is fighting for the rights of elephants, and mankind’s utter dependence on and need to fight for what remains of these ineffable beings. “There are moments when it seems a blasphemy for man to try to take the protection of nature into his own hands, when it looks as if heaven itself had decided to tear its living roots out of the earth.”
Gary’s masterpiece is the “Moby Dick” of the 20th century because it pays such transcendent homage to another species, in this case the titans of land, the elephants. In his introduction Gary wrote, “If we begin to accept the dictat of materialistic efficiency alone, mankind might survive, but not humanity.”
For quite a while now we have proven, or tried to convince ourselves, that we are masters of our universe. Only in the last few years do we realize that we have been fooling ourselves. The world has been panicked by an organism few can see. Although the plight of the whales and elephants may seem distant, they are the ultimate arbiters of our future.
Gary, who so articulated the rights of the largest land mammal on earth, was also fighting for mankind’s place in the world. Because without the others, there is “no room for man either. All that will be left of us is robots,” Gary insisted.
There is a remarkably poignant moment in the book when a prisoner in a concentration camp in Germany, cloistered in some of the most abominable conditions humans have ever had to endure, dreamed of the elephants in Africa. “I would close my eyes and think of the herds of elephants at liberty, running freely across Africa, hundreds and hundreds of magnificent animals that nothing can resist — no cement wall, no barbed wire, nothing: they rush forward over the great open spaces and smash everything in their way, and nothing can stop them. That’s liberty, I tell you! So when you begin to suffer from claustrophobia, or the barbed wire fences, the reinforced concrete, the absolute materialism, just imagine this: herds of elephants charging across the wide open spaces of Africa. Follow them with your eyes closed, keep their image inside you, and you’ll see, you’ll feel better and happier and stronger…And it worked. We did feel better, and we found a strange secret exaltation in living with this image of an all powerful liberty before our eyes.”
Liberty, that most treasured of intangibles, especially the idea America is founded on, needs what remains of Nature as never before. Not as an asset, or a resource base but to follow what was called “The laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” which entitled us to the independence we so fought for hundreds of years ago and stamped as that greatest of all ideals into the Declaration of Independence. Gary’s remarkable book placed the elephants as the beacon of hope because they were the last individuals roaming across the last great open spaces of the world. Gary understood long before it became fashionable “That it’s time to do all we can for the African elephants. That protection of nature is man’s most urgent task on earth.”
Despite more than a decade of horror, in which 130,000 elephants were killed for trinkets to satisfy the Chinese lust for ivory, Botswana, Africa’s last sanctuary for this species, has recently decided to allow for the renewal of trophy hunting of elephants. This flies in the face of sanity. The decision has to be reversed. How will poachers capitalize on the situation? How will climate change, habitat loss and water scarcity affect the great last population of elephants, forest and savannah species alike? After all they have gone through in the heyday of the slaughter in the 1980’s when more than 500,000 were destroyed and what they have had to go through the last decade, they need a permanent reprieve. They are one of the central pillars of the world. What unimaginable stress are we inflicting on the last great elephant population on earth? Each trophy collected, each tusk removed from one of these great beings is a stake plunged into the coffin of our species.
To add to the criminality of our time, amazingly, the wild animal markets, that should have been permanently banned, seem to have started up again in China — the possible root of our global coronavirus pandemic. Camel meat, porcupines, snakes, crocodile, wolf pups, foxes, peacocks are some of the animals that have been mercilessly and brutally exterminated. “Freshly slaughtered, frozen and delivered to your door,” said the vendor for ‘Wild Game Animal Husbandry.’ Has the country that gave birth to Lao Tse learned nothing in the last three months? In the words of the sage, “The world is a sacred vessel that cannot be changed. He who changes it will destroy it.” The window of opportunity is closing to permanently stop the wet markets both in China, Vietnam and around the world. The coronavirus should be an alarm call to mankind’s moral, psychological, social and spiritual fragility as a biological species and our betrayal of the animal world.
As Gary so vehemently explained, despite the ignominy and utter neglect of our condition with regards to Nature, we should be able to transcend the morass. “The mud doesn’t last forever. We’ll crawl out of it like other prehistoric beasts. In the end we’ll have lungs to breathe with and we’ll become men; we’ll become a human species at last.”
Lifting high above the eerie silence that has overtaken the globe, Africa’s elephants still trumpet the grandest sound of freedom Nature can summon. Gary wrote, “ …it always seemed to me, as I listened to the earth’s most ancient thunder, that we had not yet lost ourselves forever, that we had not yet been once and for all castrated and enslaved, that we were not yet altogether subdued. ‘You see, dogs aren’t enough any more. People feel so damned lonely, they need company, they need something bigger, stronger, to lean on, something that can really stand up to it all. Dogs aren’t enough: what we need is elephants….”