Sarah Marshall speaks to the writer and photographer about his new book focusing on elephants and a campaign to stop bushmeat poaching in Uganda.
Proof art has the power to shape even the youngest creative minds, Levison Wood credits a gallery exhibition with igniting his passion for Africa and one of its magnificent, flagstone species.
“It all dates back to when I was 10 or 12,” recalls the explorer, who has also made his name as a writer and photographer. “My dad took me to a show hosted by David Shepherd. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this man gets to travel around Africa on adventures painting elephants’.”
After years of pestering, the adventurer-in-waiting persuaded his parents to take him on a safari to Tsavo in Kenya.
“I was 15; it was one of our last family holidays,” he reminisces. “It was beautiful seeing elephants in a watering hole and being amazed by them.”
The encounter created a lasting impression, sparking a fascination for the “magical creature” and leading to the publication of his latest book, The Last Giants, which documents a journey Wood made across Botswana last summer with San Bushmen, following a herd of elephants on foot during their annual migration to the Okavango Delta.
“It looks at a spectrum of issues that face elephants: where they came from and what the hope is for the future,” he explains.
Spending time with the species also afforded Wood a deeper understanding of their behaviour.
“I didn’t quite comprehend just how intelligent, how social they are,” he reflects. “They’ve got really intricate and complicated social structures, which are incredibly similar to humans.”
By tapping into a “primeval instinct”, he says walking safaris present “a whole different ball game”. Along with tracking elephants, he also had the opportunity to see and photograph his first leopard in the wild, and was within metres of three lions on a buffalo kill.
“There’s something incredibly natural about walking around Africa on foot; it’s how we evolved,” he muses. “You have to be on alert all the time.
“There is no greater thrill than walking through natural habitats with no barriers. It’s one of the most incredible experiences that anyone could ever hope for. You feel very, very alive.”
Crossing the continent on foot is nothing new for the accomplished 37-year-old, who perfected his survival skills during a stint served with the army. He also famously completed the first expedition to walk the 6,650km length of the river Nile from Rwanda to Egypt, a nine-month feat filmed for a Channel 4 documentary series.
One of the locations he passed through was Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, where he was struck by the number of wire snares illegally set to catch bushmeat.
“We travelled with rangers, picking up traps. They can fill up a big shipping container every three months with the number of snares. And that’s all from local people; it’s not some big international poaching syndicate.”
As an ambassador for the charity Tusk, he’s now involved with a campaign to provide more than 7,000 families with a livelihood by endowing them with essential farming skills. Launched in partnership with Send A Cow, the Living With Wildlife project aims to protect the endangered wildlife of Murchison Falls by engaging with communities.
“The root cause is poverty,” he says. “You need to make sure people have enough to eat. There needs to be proper education and proper opportunities for young people, so they’re not tempted or forced to go down the illegal wildlife road.”
An affection for Africa’s people and wildlife has instilled an interest in conservation, and Wood is acutely aware of the challenges lying ahead for the continent – particularly at a time when coronavirus dominates headlines.
He warns there’s a risk “people will forget about other issues in the world”, which could lead to an increase in poaching and land grabbing, as individuals struggle to survive.
Habitat loss is one of the main threats to African elephants, he laments, suggesting a solution could be the creation of “mega parks” connecting national parks across borders to create corridors for wildlife to move freely. But he acknowledges: “There’s a lot of politics and in-fighting to get over before that can happen.”
When it comes to public perception, he partly blames wildlife documentaries for presenting a sugar-coated image of Africa. “They never turn the camera around and show what’s really happening: telephone masts, the roads, the dams that are being built,” he complains. “It’s as much about the people as it is about the wildlife.”
Nothing, however, can detract from the beauty of a continent which has romanced so many authors, photographers and explorers throughout history. Articulating his own emotional connection, Wood refers to the wilderness, the diversity of landscapes, the culture, the long legacy of a British connection.
But above all, he says: “It’s the lack of pretension; there’s something very authentic about Africa.”
3 of Levison Wood’s favourite African destinations
1. Cape Town, South Africa
“It’s one of my favourite places in the world: you can be climbing Table Mountain in the morning and surfing in the afternoon.”
2. Chobe National Park, Botswana
“I stayed at the Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge, which was something quite special, because it relies on a watering hole to observe wildlife, and that was beautiful.”
3. Murchison Falls, Uganda
“It’s a magical landscape with the Nile cutting through these amazing gorges with waterfalls. Then there’s the sheer amount of densely-populated wildlife. I think it’s got more crocodiles and hippos than anywhere else.”
The Last Giants: The Rise and Fall of the African Elephant is published by Hodder and Stoughton, priced £20.
For more information on the Living With Wildlife campaign, visit tusk.org.