Wildlife photographer, Billy Dodson, speaks at the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos on Saturday, October 4, 2014.

On Saturday, October 4, 2014, an estimated 1,500 people gathered at St. Mary’s Square in downtown San Francisco to participate in the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, joining over 100 cities across the globe to peacefully demand an end to the poaching of elephant tusks and rhino horns. After a two-mile walk in what turned out to be one of the warmest days in San Francisco and that included a moving memorial at a Chinatown ivory shop, participants finished at United Nations Plaza for music, speeches, and an opportunity to share information about the poaching crisis. Following is the full transcript of our keynote speaker, wildlife photographer, Billy Dodson, whose images and words perfectly capture the crisis at hand.


Billy Dodson with Rosemary Alles of March for Elephants
Thanks so much to everyone for being here. Most of us have given up a day in our lives to be part of this momentous event. But there are a few people who have quite literally sacrificed weeks and months of their time to make all this possible. None of this is easy to do … they’ve planned routes, coordinated permits, invited speakers, and performed more miracles than I can name … and over the past week, or so they’ve worked through the night to put the finishing touches on the planning, logistics and administration of this march.

Many organizers deserve our special thanks, but I’d especially like to acknowledge Joan Lichterman, Tamara Birdsall, and Rosemary Alles for their efforts … and somewhere in Ontario is that wisp of a girl with the great heart of a lioness who has kept her fingers on the pulse of so many of the marches happening today … and that is Lori Sirianni. These angels did what they did with absolutely zero expectation of reward … they acted in the noblest tradition of the human spirit by simply doing the right thing. I respectfully request an epic round of applause for them.

A few years ago, the great elephant researcher Joyce Poole wrote a book about her life and studies. In that wonderful little volume she related a story.  She remembered an elephant mother with a still born calf near Amboseli in southern Kenya. The rest of the family stayed close by the tragedy for some time, but eventually they moved away. The mother remained with the dead infant, grieving through a very hot and dusty day and into the late afternoon.

As a scientist and researcher, Joyce’s right and proper role was simply to observe … she was bound by an unwritten code to keep a respectful distance … and not become personally involved with what happens in nature. But after hours with the suffering mother, she thought “to hell with this” … and drove back to her camp to fetch a jerry can of water and a tub. She returned to the elephant, drove close and placed the water where it was easily seen. The suffering mother approached warily, but eventually drank all the water placed before her. Joyce repeated her act of kindness and the grieving mom again emptied the container. She filled the basin a third time, and the mother elephant drank again, sprayed and then returned to her dead baby. Joyce collected the basin and parked a short distance away. After a few minutes the mother elephant eased away from the baby and toward Joyce’s vehicle. She approached the driver’s side with caution, and after a few uncertain seconds, she placed her trunk inside the rover and across Joyce’s arm and chest.

It was an unmistakable gesture of gratitude.

Those of us who closely follow the lives of these threatened animals know perfectly well that elephants really do remember. There are documented cases of them being reunited after decades with long lost friends and family … and the pure joy and emotion they express is as profound as what a human would feel under the same circumstances. I just related the story of the grieving mother, but elephants also honor their family members long after they’re gone. They visit the remains of the deceased months and years later, holding and caressing the bones of their relatives … and it is certain that they know whose remains they touch … and it’s equally sure that they experience the same emotions we feel when we visit the final resting places of our loved ones.

These animals feel both joy and sorrow, and I respectfully submit that they feel them as profoundly as we do. Elephants have been known to comfort each other in times of loss or distress. It happens in the field when a family tragedy occurs, and it also happens in the paddocks at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi. And sometimes they aid those outside their own species.

There is a story, related by Rick Ridgeway if I remember correctly, about elephants crossing paths with a blind Cape buffalo. The elephants appeared to consult with each other, holding something like a meeting. And after that meeting they collectively nudged the Cape buffalo … and eventually led it to water. That story may be apocryphal, but it is plausible and the moral is certainly valid.

And that is … elephants feel compassion.

The sum total of these anecdotes tells us this … that there is no other species on this earth that could generate the passion and energy captured on this day. I don’t think we could ever see a global march on this scale for lions, a global march for cheetahs, a global march for bears. We wouldn’t even see it for whales or for rhinos alone. The elephants touch us the most … because their lives, emotions and actions parallel our own in so many ways. But there is something else …

I believe that the plight of the elephants touches us because, within the depths of every decent human heart, there is the knowledge that there’s something intrinsically wrong, something anomalous about this, that the greatest of our land animals … creatures which by right of nature should never fear us … are being overwhelmed by an insidious combination of human technology and greed. We sense and feel this as much as we know it … that these great animals, docile by nature … desiring nothing more than to be left alone … should never be vulnerable to our depredations in this way.

As we stand here today there are 26 black rhinos residing inside the walls of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. These rhinos are under 24-hour-a-day protection by the Tanzanian Wildlife Service. At the small private reserve at Thula Thula in South Africa there are two white rhinos, and they are quite literally under a 24-hour armed guard escort. They do not take a step without their protectors moving in unison alongside them. In the Maasai Mara there is a small but stable population of black rhinos … and the Kenya Wildlife Service is very rarely out of their field of view. What does it say about our own species when these iconic animals require around the clock protection? What does it say about us as a species that what amounts to an organized crime syndicate exists for the sole purpose of ravaging wildlife and delivering their body parts to Asia and elsewhere? This actually frames the issue in its larger context.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all have a deep connection with Africa.  The first time I visited the Serengeti many years ago I remember stopping along a dry creek bed not far from the entrance to the reserve.  Acacia trees lined its banks … they stood low and still in the sun … covered in a heavy gray and fine African dust.  And as I sat there on a rock I had an odd feeling of déjà vu … that I’d visited this place before and was in some way attached to it. Now I realize that the feeling struck me because this really is my ancestral land.  It is, in fact, the birthplace of all mankind. That, in its simplest terms, is the connection.

And now, the greatest iconic symbols of that ancient home are under an unprecedented assault.  Humanity bears the responsibility for the imminent destruction of those symbols. And when we finally kill them off for good, there’s no doubt in my heart and head that we’ve actually destroyed the best part of ourselves.  It is more than a simple case of self-mutilation, it is an irrecoverable form of suicide. In his 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad described the ivory trade as “wild and senseless” … he called it “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the human conscience.” Those are powerful and disturbing words … but I wonder what he’d write if he could see what’s happening today. I believe he’d find his own prose to be insipid, weak and in all ways inadequate.

This is a problem with no easy answer … but giving up is not an option.   We must continue to press on all fronts … to offer financial and material support to the rangers who place their very lives in peril on the front lines, actively engaged with those who would do great physical violence to these animals. We must support the organizations like the African Wildlife Foundation and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that labor so tirelessly to protect rhino and elephant habitat, who facilitate harmony between humans and animals and who rescue the increasing numbers of orphans … the living residue of the poaching epidemic. And perhaps most of all, we must do everything in our collective power to change the attitudes of those who view the parts of these animals as trinkets, baubles, medicines and aphrodisiacs.

The mistreatment of animals and this execrable scourge of poaching illustrate the worst that humankind has to offer. But I’d submit that events like this march bring out the best.

– There are many soulless people in this world, criminals who can see no further than their own material gain. But there are more of us … hundreds of people in hundreds of cities united to do what’s right for elephants and rhinos. We have them by the numbers.

– And the poachers may have automatic weapons, but we’re armed with a passion for life and a love for these animals that cannot be overcome.

We must and will find a way to end this insanity.

So I stand before you today … preaching to the choir … as we southerners say.

What can we, those of us present at this march, do to improve things? For starters, we must expand the size of the choir. And we accomplish that with non-stop efforts to elevate global awareness … by participating in events like this again and again and again. And we must remain focused, determined, dedicated and most importantly … proactively engaged.

One last story if I may, this one also from Dr. Poole’s book. She relates the time when, after following a specific elephant family for several months, she was forced to take a break from their company … she was in the last stages of her pregnancy and she left the animals to give birth to and nurture her own daughter. She was separated from the elephant family for several weeks. Eventually she rejoined them with her infant child in company … and she was overwhelmed by what happened as she parked near the herd.  The elephants became visibly agitated at her presence and eventually crowded around her vehicle, going through all the routines, motions and gestures they would use when crossing paths with a long lost elephant friend or family member. Joyce and her daughter were being greeted in the elephant language and in the elephant way. They extended their trunks into the vehicle to touch and sniff the new child and seemed to react with the interest, excitement and affection only family members can sincerely display.

This incident tells me that elephants are not only capable of loving each other.  If the circumstances and conditions are right … they are capable of loving us as well.

So let us end this day with a commitment and an affirmation that we will return that love.  I would urge this group … and the 130 others marching on this day … to stay stoked, stay strong … and most importantly … keep the faith. These animals are depending on us. And we can’t let them down.

From the heart … blessings and thanks to all.

Billy Dodson, Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, October 4, 2014