The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild
Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence
St. Martins Press NY, NY 2009
I really wasn’t sure when I picked this up if I would like it. Would it be a collection of stories about animals in Africa? Would it be about training elephants to do work for people? Would the elephants be a metaphor for the political situation in South Africa? Would it be a memoir of safaris? The answer to my questions turned out to be a delightful yes and no.
Our Lawrence Anthony and his lovely French wife, Francoise, have bought a game reserve in Zululand in South Africa. It turns out that the idea is truly to preserve the species in a wilderness habitat rather than to create a zoo or a hunting reserve. We learn that the animals are actually native to this area but were pushed out for so long that most of the local native tribespeople have never even seen things like an elephant in person.
Politically, Lawrence grew up in the area and was very active in the movement for civil rights for the South African natives. He speaks the local languages and knows the tribal chiefs personally. He dreams that the small reserve he has purchased could be joined into a large Royal Zulu game reserve connecting his little parcel Thula Thula to the National Forest. That would not only allow for the return of the native species but also become a corridor for their natural migratory patterns. This is a dream with serious political ramifications and the book holds stories that represent some of them.
The center of the book is Lawrence Anthony’s relationship with a herd of elephants. He acquires them because they were unruly enough to warrant killing them, at least in terms common among small reserves. Lawrence takes on the challenge and throws out the book. He takes his cues from the elephants, particularly Nana the Matriarch, and works to establish trust.
It’s clear from the stories that Anthony Lawrence has a genuine love of nature in nature. We hear not only about the elephants but also other animals the reserve acquires. There are stories about the rhinoceros, the crocodile and even the family pets. Max, his bull terrier, is clearly a partner in the process. As this narrative covers several years time we are sad to see Max aging and eventually unable to keep up.
Developing this dream has its challenges. There are stories about the staff some of whom are priceless and others who are problematic. We see that part of the dream is to provide jobs, training and opportunities to the young tribesmen. Those who are successful are also those who clearly share the vision of seeing the animals thrive, unencumbered in their native environments.
Of course a dream this large needs funding. So there is an exclusive resort built on the property. Camera safaris are conducted. Tourists are wined and dined in high French fashion. Still, it is clear that the animals are the priority. When flooding creates new pools and pockets very near the resort and residence areas the crocodiles that move in are left alone.
So too, over time, are the elephants. The close relationship Lawrence builds with Nana does not need to continue into the subsequent generations. In the end the dream truly is to let the elephants and the other wildlife simply be. Now I have a trip to South Africa and Thula Thula Lodge on my bucket list. The stories have drawn me in and created a compelling picture. It would be a delight to see it all in person.
Sadly, Lawrence Anthony died a year ago March 2, 2012. The elephants he loved showed up to mourn his death. Here’s the link to the article. News: Elephants gather inexplicably to morn death of “Elephant Whisperer”