The Power, Majesty, and Preservation of African Elephants
An interview with conservationist Larry Laverty about his new book.
Posted Sep 08, 2019
A few weeks ago I received a copy of wildlife photographer, conservationist, and actor Larry Laverty's new book Power and Majesty: The Plight and Preservation of the African Elephant that's packed with wonderful stories and stunning photographs of these magnificent beings. Mr. Laverty has traveled to ten African nations and to all of the ecosystems in which elephants live. In his book there also are moving quotes from many people, and two that caught my eye are these, the first from Desmond Tutu and the second from Jane Goodall.
"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." (Desmond Tutu)
"Known and loved, each with his or her individual personality. How cruel we are as a species. Each of the thousands of elephants murdered had his or her own personality, place in the herd, family bonds. Each was an individual that mattered. Each deserved respect." (Jane Goodall)
I asked Mr. Laverty if he could answer a few questions about his book and gladly he said he could. Our interview went as follows.
"Estimates indicate that at least 25 million elephants lived in Africa in the year 1800. By 1900, accurate estimates indicate 12 million elephants lived there. By 2000, just over 3 million survived. And today, as the relentless crush of humanity on the earth continues, there are only 415,000 elephants left alive in Africa. The elephant death toll at the hands of humans is in the countless millions." (Larry Laverty)
Why did you write Power and Majesty?
My upset from the never-ending abuse and destruction of the beautiful animals we share this earth with drove me into action about twenty years ago. I began donating financially to a wildlife conservation organization here in the United States. Once I became sensitized to the elephants of Africa, I scoured my life to see what else I could do to be a part of saving those elephants still with us. Writing and photography won the day. I determined to share all that I had learned that had endeared me to the African elephant along with the popular photographs I’d taken. Power and Majesty was born out of a determination to inform the world about the unique intelligence and emotional lives of elephants. This enlightenment in turn, I hope, will lead others to feel strongly enough about elephants to join in the outcry and make contributions as I do to conservation groups that are working hard every day to improve the situation for elephants in Africa.
How does it follow up on your previous work and interests?
From a very young age, I’ve felt a deep connection with all animals. The affinity grew out of relationships with family pets, animals my family rescued, and heartwarming encounters with wildlife. As my life progressed, I became empowered to speak out on behalf of animals, wild and domestic, who fell victim to wrongdoings by humans.
Also from a young age, I was recognized in this world as a talented writer and photographer. My parents gave me a little camera when I was 5 years old and my middle-school English teacher appointed me to the staff of the school newspaper. The necessary ingredients were in place for success later in life.
In 2013, I became painfully aware at a deep level of what had been taking place in Africa to the majestic elephants many of us had grown up revering. I studied the ivory trade. I began making trips to Africa to fulfill a curiosity about earth’s largest living land animal and I photographed them extensively. Through social media, I began a campaign of sharing photographs I’d taken of elephants, each photo accompanied by written observations and occasionally by short stories. As time passed, my social media following grew to several thousand people and a good number of them began suggesting that I write a book. Armed by this encouragement, I returned to Africa again and again, each time going deeper and deeper into the continent, off the beaten path, to be with elephants. At last, I had a comprehensive collection of photographs and observations I felt would make a credible, comprehensive book on the African elephant.
Who is your intended audience?
As I put Power and Majesty together, I was fairly certain I would have a sizable and receptive audience among elephant lovers and others who were simply curious about them. My challenge though was to present the lives of African elephants in such a way that people who picked up the book and who knew nothing about elephants would be won over, inspired by these magical beings enough to standup for them, one way or the other.
What are some of your major messages? I really like the combined power of the stories and images of individual elephants.
The story of the African elephant is a tragedy in three acts. The iconic figure we know and love from cartoons and children’s books is not the animal that lives over in Africa today. In a sense, we humans who live outside the continent of Africa have been blinded by the warm, fuzzy image of elephant life from a child’s perspective. In Power and Majesty, I felt it my duty to put forward the realities of elephant life as they exist today, but to do so constantly mindful of the magic and beauty of the animal.
While the various chapters of the book look at the lives of the different types of elephants in Africa and call attention to the widely different environments in which they live across the continent, the overarching aspect of elephant life today and for the past two centuries is the impact of mankind on their lives. In order to see where all this history has been leading the elephant, a very similar story took place here in the United States, a little over 100 years ago during the second half of the 19th century.
In the early days of the United States as a nation, roughly 60 million buffalo lived across the continent, from the coast of Oregon to Florida. The Native Americans lived in harmony with them and early Europeans occasionally took them for food and then clothing. As the nation grew and pushed development westward, the buffalo were seen as a pest, vermin to be cleared from the land so proper ranching and farming could take place. With their numbers falling fast, the land they once grazed in peace was replaced by homesteads, farms, ranches and commerce. Then came the unimaginable. The government determined that the best way to remove the Native Americans from the land was to remove the center of their lifestyle, the buffalo. Wholesale slaughter followed, the largest holocaust in the history of our earth. In the end, only 23 wild buffalo remained. Twenty-three.
Just 200 years ago, roughly 20 million elephants lived across Africa, from coast to coast. Today, their population is under half a million. Meanwhile, Africa’s human population has spiraled out of control as the fastest growing continent on the planet. While ivory hunting has diminished in places, humans and elephants are fighting it out for the last remaining fertile land on the continent. Every day, more elephant habitat succumbs to cultivation and invasion from humans and their livestock. Elephants are commonly shot or speared in the conflict, with most now forced onto conservation areas such as national parks for survival. The story of the American buffalo is repeating itself in Africa, this time with the elephants in a fight for their lives.
Are you hopeful that there will be some major changes in mind and heart in the future?
Hope is a vital element in the well-being of any living thing. I can’t help but wonder just how hopeful the elephants of Africa are, given their masterful powers of memory, including all that has been perpetrated against them by humans. As for my state of hope as it pertains to Africa and elephants, I can only think of the buffalo who I also fight for in terms of conservation. No matter how dire the circumstances for both America’s buffalo and Africa’s elephants, I can never give up. My heart is too strong. Do I think that humanity is in store for major changes in heart and mind in the near future? I say the chances are 50/50. I’m a hopeful person, but also very much a realist.
What are some of your current projects?
Today, I’m in the early stages of a second book on elephants, this one about the elephants who call Asia home. Their future is in even greater jeopardy as their numbers are already relatively low and Asia’s human population is already astronomical in size.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?
I dedicated 30 years of my life to sports and a career as an actor. Each of these pursuits require an above average commitment of mind and soul in order to get anywhere. While I’m grateful for the insights I gained into the powers of the human mind and spirit along the way, it has been through the study of elephants that I’ve gained the greatest perspective on humanity and an awareness of what love and compassion are truly all about.
Bekoff, Marc. Elephant: A Groundbreaking Book On Majestic Giants. (An interview with Errol Fuller, author of Elephant.)