“A world without elephants is like a world without oxygen.”
—Turkana member of Kenya Wildlife Service, in the film Walking Thunder.
I don’t want to live in a world without elephants, lions, tigers, rhinos, or polar bears. Or mosquitos, for that matter. It’s not just about the large mammals known in conservation circles as “charismatic megafauna.” It’s about the whole delicately-balanced, interconnected, biodiverse eco-system. A world without these species would be not only infinitely poorer, but ultimately uninhabitable—spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
I had the privilege last week of attending the premier screening of a documentary film called Walking Thunder: Ode to the African Elephant. Full disclosure: I knew about the film because I’m friends with the producer/directors, Marie Wilkinson and Cyril Christo, and their young son Lysander, who is a key part of the film’s narrative.
I was spellbound from the very beginning, enchanted by the still and moving images of elephants, rhino, and lions. I’ve loved and longed for Africa ever since I was a child, and dreamed of going there, a dream first fulfilled by the six months I spent in Kenya in 1975, and later by two long trips to South Africa in 1993 and 2009, and to Egypt earlier this year. I loved not only the vast and varied landscape of Nature on the continent, but the warmth, passion, and welcome of African people of many tribes and regions.
Walking Thunder is a film some 20 years in the making. It was begun before Lysander was born, when photographers Cyril and Marie began their odyssey chronicling African elephants where they thrived and where they were threatened. After the bird of their son, they continued their travels, putting a camera into his hands when he was barely more than a toddler. Lysander’s voice over narration, as well as his on-screen comments at various stages of his growing up, provides a sense of wonder as well as a sense of humor. As a 12-year-old, he looks back on his childhood and reminisces that he took his first steps in Africa. He observes that if everyone could experience what he has, the world would be different and elephants and other species would be protected.
The story of the family of photographers is a thread that stitches the film together, but in no way overpowers the stories of the elephants themselves, or the voices of the many indigenous people who live alongside elephants. Stunning black and white still images of elephants are seamlessly interwoven with moving images of elephants and other wildlife, African people of many tribes and regions, and people from other cultures who have dedicated their lives to ensuring the survival of elephants. Some of the stories are illustrated by engaging animations, and co-producer Wendy Blackstone’s sensitive score enhances the imagery, stories, and emotions.
I found myself many times in tears, especially about the tragic and unnecessary deaths of elephants due to poaching for the ivory trade. The film handles that issue well, giving facts about the complex social and economic reasons behind the illegal trade without too many of the kind of shocking and grisly images that my animal-loving Facebook friends have begged everyone not to post. The footage of obviously agitated elephants who have lost family members to poaching says far more than images of the slaughter itself.
There were many touching and humorous moments in the film as well, such as when young Lysander’s voice can be heard urging his parents to please leave now, before an obviously angry elephant charges them. It looks like they drive off just in the nick of time.
During the two decades that Marie and Cyril were making the film, the climate has changed drastically in much of the African continent. Drought has strangled much of equatorial East Africa for years. Climate change and loss of habitat and wildlife corridors due to exponentially increasing human population in sub-Saharan Africa have put pressure on elephant populations, as well as on many other species.
The filmmakers hope that elephants will continue to survive, even thrive. But this optimistic outcome will require a concerted effort by governments, international and local NGO’s, and the indigenous people who live with these magnificent and highly intelligent beings.
No one who has ever had the privilege of viewing and interacting with wildlife in Africa can ever forget the majesty and awe of one’s first sight of wild-living animals. Perhaps it is a line of traveling elephants silhouetted against a golden horizon, tenderly protecting the babies who hold onto their mother’s tails. Or maybe it’s seeing a playful half-grown leopard in a tree, or a pride of lions resting in the mid-afternoon sun in the middle of a dusty road. Experiencing Nature up close returns us to our roots in a time when humans and the rest of the world’s creatures were not so far apart as they are now.
One of the most moving scenes in the film is an African ranger talking about how when they find the bones of elephants, they honor them by placing branches with green leaves into the holes of the skull. For Africans, a world without elephants is literally unthinkable.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunities I have had to travel in Africa, and hope to have more. Meanwhile, this heartfelt film has the potential to give millions of people a glimpse into the experience of Africa—the wildness of creatures unconcerned with humans as long as the humans don’t kill them, destroy their habitat and pathways, and change the cycles of their seasons beyond recognition.
An excellent and informative review of the film written by Zoe Krasney for Voices for Biodiversity can be found here: