One of the opening lines that captured my attention was when Anthony wrote, "Elephants taught me how to listen." As the narrative unfolds, the reader discovers that his herd of rogue elephants also taught him about trust, loyalty, respect, and freedom.
South African Lawrence Anthony's game reserve, Thula Thula, is in the heart of Zululand. He started it in 1998 with 1500 hectare, and was committed to returning the area to its original state. When he was asked if he would receive seven elephants hostile in their interactions with humans, he couldn't refuse. This was the first of many difficult choices he faced: if he didn't take them, they would be killed.
|The first herd arrived in 1999.|
Contrary to popular opinion which dictated that wild elephants should have no contact with humans when brought into a new home, Anthony decided he needed to let these traumatized "magnificent" animals (his favorite descriptor) get to know him. While they were in quarantine he spend night and day outside the fence talking to them and letting them get used to him. He named them and used their names in conversation. The day that the matriarch, Nana, reached her trunk towards him, he stood still while she sniffed him. The next day he released them into the preserve.
The book is full of Anthony's challenges. The herd figured out how to break through the electric fences and head back home. Anthony spent time and money to bring them back--knowing that the alternative was for them to be killed. Poachers (who turned out to be his own guards) killed over one hundred animals and obtained thousands of pounds of meat worth thousands of dollars. Three white rhinos were introduced into the preserve; keeping the elephants away from them was a huge task.
One time he was pedaling a bike with his fiancé, Francois, alongside of him. They accidentally ended up in the middle of the herd. Being up against seven huge animals who were unfamiliar with the bicycle and Francois put the pair in serious danger.
Meanwhile, Anthony spent hundreds of hours with the herd gaining their trust. One night he opened the door of the lodge to see Nana practically inside. She snaked her trunk through his bedroom window and although she could easily have picked him up and done whatever she wanted with him, Anthony stood firm and let her sniff him. Later Francois recommended a bath-- Anthony was covered in half a pint of elephant slime.
|The main house which Nana decided to visit.|
Anthony developed an uncanny ability to sense when the herd was near. He felt as if the elephants could project their presence into the area. If they didn't want to be found, they wouldn't be. He could sense their deep rumblings in the bush even if he couldn't hear them. "The elephants determined the emotional feelings of the encounter, not me." Similarly, the elephants set the boundaries, not Anthony. Mostly he sat and waited for them to feel comfortable before moving closer to them.
When Anthony was gone for a week, there would be a welcoming committee of seven elephants waiting when he returned. When a fire broke out on the reserve, the elephants led humans and other animals to the Crock Pool to wait until the fire burned itself out.
In 2004 Anthony and his team of rangers rescued a baby elephant who was born with deformed feet. He and Francois cared for him in their guest bedroom.
Despite bottle feeding and intensive medical care, baby Thula died and the entire staff was heart-broken.
Anthony noted that Nana communicated with her eyes, trunk rumblings, and subtle body movements. One day he walked out to her and she walked towards him and he had no escape route. Her legs--as big as tree trunks--could crush him. But the moment he spoke to her she relaxed and so did he. "Communication is a two-way street--whether it's a person or an animal. You have to acknowledge that the communication has reached you. Or, it's all over."
By the time Anthony died in 2012, the herd numbered thirty elephants. For three consecutive years the herd returned to the house on the day of his death to mourn him.
In 2008 and then again in 2010, Thula Thula partnered with adjoining lands and increased in size by another 2300 hectare.
The Elephant Whisperer, which will be enjoyed by children and adults, ends with a plea for conservation. For more information about the reserve--including staying there and participating in bush excursions, please see Thula Thula's website. (All pictures are from the website.) Here's an audio clip so you can hear Simon Vance's terrific narration.
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