For decades Michael "Nick" Nichols has "made noise" with his photographs in order to help bring attention to the plight of wondrous things.
The internationally renowned photographer and Albemarle County resident now speaks with the urgency of a man who has seen ghastly crimes against nature and is trying desperately to stop them. The savage outrage has to do with the ongoing slaughter of elephants solely for their ivory tusks.
In Nichols' new book, "Earth to Sky: Among Africa's Elephants, a Species in Crisis," he documents in words and pictures the majesty of these threatened creatures and the horrific butchery that is decimating their families. At 7 p.m. Thursday, he will take the stage at the Paramount Theater to give the first presentation of a show-and-tell lecture tour that will take him to major cities throughout the country and London.
The father of two will talk about three endangered species — lions, elephants and redwood trees . At the conclusion of the talk and showing of dramatic photographs, Nichols will be signing copies of his new book.
"I'm starting the tour here in Charlottesville, because it's something I like to do for the community," Nichols said during a recent interview. "I'll be talking about lions and the big trees, but the emphasis of the talk will be on the crisis that elephants in Africa are now in.
"The big pitch out of this new book, which is being sent to 25 African leaders, is getting the word out about how we can't allow the killing of elephants to continue for their ivory. Rather than publishing a book all about poaching and the ivory market, I figured the pictures I had that could make a difference are showing how sentient elephants are.
"And show how much elephants think, care for each other and go beyond what we define as an animal. All the pictures and quotes in the book are all about saying that we cannot let this happen for a useless commodity."
Nichols has been photographing elephants for more than 20 years. He said the current crisis is largely being fueled by the rising affluence of China's middle class, which covets ivory for use in art and jewelry and as status symbols.
"We're all realizing that the ivory of the elephants is being used to fund a lot of the rebels in those areas," Nichols said. "The Janjaweed, who are doing the killing, are the guys on horseback who did the genocide in Sudan.
"It's all about funding their revolution or whatever with the ivory. They're literally wiping the elephants out. There were 3,600 elephants when we were there, and it got down to 300.
"There's no big tuskers left, because they've all been killed. They're now killing young elephants with tiny, little tusks. The only way we can stop it is to get that commodity out of the system through international pressure."
The elephants Nichols photographed for the first 10 years were forest elephants. The instant they would detect his scent, they would bolt and run away.
These elephants were petrified of humans, and Nichols correctly surmised it was because they were being shot. Then in 2006, Nichols' close friend and longtime collaborator, conservationist and biologist J. Michael Fay, told him about finding 1,000 elephants in one group in Chad.
Nichols had thought numbers of elephants like that had long vanished from the earth. But an aerial photo showing hundreds of them massed together had Nichols and his assistant, Nathan Williamson, on their way to Chad.
"You think of Chad as a desert, but there's this area that is truly a miracle on earth," Nichols said. "There's a unique ecosystem where there's a big bowl that catches water for all the animals, but humans can't live there because of the tsetse fly.
"So there's this whole set of circumstances that allows an animal paradise to exist in this place. I went up in an ultralight aircraft and was able to get pictures of about 800 elephants being led to food and water by an old female elephant.
"That night, that group of 800 elephants, left the park and 20 of them were machine-gunned. We had stumbled upon the beginning of the kind of elephant genocide that is still going on."
Nichols will tell his Thursday-evening audience how that flight nearly killed him and the pilot. He also will share fascinating anecdotes that reveal how remarkable elephants are.
"Elephants seem to have a built-in, three-day weather station," said Nichols, who has been a staff photographer for National Geographic since 1996 and its editor-at-large since 2008.
"They mourn their dead.
"They take care of their children in a way that's very similar to us. You'll see Mom busy eating and socializing with her adult friends, and the kids will be playing.
"The older brothers and sisters take care of the kids, and when their play starts getting out of hand — they play really rough — they'll take the little one back to Mom. They have incredible caring for each other that seems to be altruistic. And almost all the wives' tales about things like elephants having great memories are now proving to be solid science."
For the past two years Nichols, his wife, Reba Peck, and Williamson have been documenting the lives of lions living on the Serengeti in Africa. Nichols' photographs and story by David Quammen, "The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion," appeared in the August issue of National Geographic magazine.
"Nathan has worked with me on all my projects for the last 10 years," Nichols said of Williamson, who is also from Albemarle County. Williamson is the son of Fred Williamson, who is renowned for creating wooden bowls. "Reba has been with me on all the projects I'll be talking about at the Paramount.
"She was as important to the lion project as Nathan and I were. She was driver, naturalist, accountant, spotter and a very stable voice."
While Nichols took still photographs, Williamson was filming. He is now at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo., showing some of the footage which can be seen at www.ngm.com/serengeti-lion/.
"The lion project turns out to be the swan song of my working with Nick," Williamson, now a filmmaker, said during a telephone interview. "He has been a massive hero of mine since I learned about the Megatransect [expedition across Africa from 1999-2001] he and Mike Fay did.
"During the 10 years I've been with Nick, I've seen some of the most amazing things. During the lion project, we spent nine months with lions in an area that's off limits to tourists.
"Nick is extremely passionate about his pictures, and he enabled me to become a filmmaker. It has been a remarkable journey."
Nichols has photographed more than 25 stories for National Geographic, each of which involved varying degrees of danger. Working within touching distances of the king of the beasts called for courage and the employment of ground-breaking technology.
In addition to a specially modified vehicle, Nichols used infrared, military-style night-vision equipment, a remote control mini-tank and a small camera on a electric helicopter to capture amazing photographs.
"What we told ourselves at the start of the lion project was that what was going to get us killed was stupidity, not staying tuned in and focused, and not looking out for each other," said Nichols. "What we found is if you go slow with lions, and you introduce yourself, there is no aggression — just indifference, like you would expect from a cat.
"The lions we were focused on were seen once a week by a scientist who introduced us to them. So the lions were like, 'OK, we trust that car.' And then we were there so much that we became part of their team.
"Lions are the only cats that cooperate with one another, are social and establish coalitions. This could be my imagination, but because we became so much on the lions' team, it seemed the other animals were afraid of us."
There are good reasons why lions are feared by man and beast. Since 1988 when records started being kept, lions have attacked more than 1,000 Tanzanians.
Nichols is a realist and understands why the two most reviled creatures in Africa, to the people who have to live with them, are lions and elephants. Li ons in Africa are also in crisis, because of illegal killing, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation.
"The lions will eat you and the elephants will mess up your stuff real bad," Nichols said. "So if we're out there saying, 'Why can't we have lions and elephants everywhere?', we're not thinking clearly.
"You've got people going crazy about the Crozet cougar. Think about a pride of nine lions living near you; they're going to be real serious when they go to work.
"And so you just can't have them interacting with people, except with those humans who are very comfortable with them. There are tribes in Africa that know how to live with lions and elephants, and they're the ones we want to have become guardians of the lions."
A program showing positive results in southern Kenya employs Maasai tribesmen as Lion Guardians. The same men who once killed lions are now monitoring their movements and keeping the big cats from run-ins with herders and their cattle.
Nichols believes such innovative thinking, awareness and worldwide outrage can stem the wholesale slaughter of elephants.
"What I want people to understand is that, yes, [stuff] happens," Nichols said. "That doesn't mean we've got to stand by and let it happen and say, 'Oh, it's just the way the world is.'
"No, we've got to make some noise, and that's what I do. I make noise with pictures. The things I've seen elephants do have changed my view of the natural world.
"Then I end up with lions and find out they're incredible at taking care of their family. And they are incredibly driven to do certain things that, in my opinion, need to be respected.
"People ask me if I'm religious, and I didn't use to be. These guys have made me religious, but it isn't the God we all talk about. It's a bigger, more benign God.
"I don't know what it is, but there's something special out there that makes us all more alike than we could ever dream."
"An Evening with Michael "Nick" Nichols: National Geographic Photographer" will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Paramount Theater.
Tickets are $15, $8 for youths, and can be purchased at www.theparamount.net. Nichols will be signing copies of his new book, "Earth to Sky: Among Africa's Elephants, a Species in Crisis," following his talk. The book is $50.
Proceeds from the event will benefit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which is an elephant orphanage in Kenya.