Lawrence Anthony interview: The elephant man
eading Anthony’s way, as has often happened, he tries to take a moment to decide whether it’s a real or fake charge (it’s something to do with the look in their eye) before he acts.
“The fake charges are the scariest,” he says. “It’s very clever – they put their ears out, they lift themselves up and put their trunk up so that they are full height. Analytically, logically, you know it’s a mock charge but your body is saying ‘I don’t care, I’m out of here’. You’ve got to hold it together to stop yourself from running away.
“Anyone who tells you they can deal with an elephant charge is lying. It takes you half a week to recover from something like that.”
Elephants are Anthony’s speciality. Not because he’s spent years in universities researching the majestic pachyderms, as would be the usual story, but because in 1999 Anthony managed to become the owner of a herd of “delinquent” elephants.
The new owner, with his Parisian wife, Françoise, of a game reserve called Thula Thula, in Zululand, South Africa, Anthony was just getting to grips with living his dream. As a man who’d always loved nature, he now had a 5,000 acre swathe of bush to manage.
Elephants weren’t part of the plan, but a phone call changed that. A herd of nine “troublesome” elephants (three adult females, three youngsters, an adolescent bull and two babies) needed a home. If Anthony didn’t take them, they’d be shot. All of them.
Before sentiment kicks in, it’s worth remembering that these animals were traumatised and wild. The adults weighed as much as five tons and they had escaped from every enclosure they’d ever been in – led by a matriarch who could snap electric fences with a twist of her tusks. Anthony is now a respected conservationist with a slew of awards to his name and founder of the Earth Organisation, a conservation project active in 14 countries around the world. But then he was a former property developer whose love of nature came from a childhood spent moving from small town to small town with his father’s job.
Anthony grew up in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He learned to shoot a gun and tempt a scorpion out of its hole with a blade of grass. But specialist knowledge? “I’m not from a scientific background,” he says with a smile. “I barely finished high school.”
Everyone warned him against taking the herd, not least the authorities, but Anthony’s a dreamer, and a maverick. Tall, with a beard and a child-like grin, he’s got a twinkle in his eye. Maybe it’s the adventuring spirit inherited from his Scottish grandfather, a miner who took himself to South Africa on a mail ship at the start of the last century. Whatever the reason, he’s not the kind to refuse a challenge.
When the herd arrived on the dry, dusty soil of Thula Thula only weeks after that call, they were the first wild elephants in that area of South Africa for over a century and a relationship was started which has had a profound impact on Anthony.
“This was a group of desperate and bewildered animals who had been on the run,” Anthony says. “Even though they were angry and traumatised I could see there was something there. If you looked in their eyes, there was something much bigger than I sensed with a buck or a zebra. I realised I didn’t have a lot of choice. The authorities said don’t do this but they were going to die so what the hell, I thought, I’ll do it my way.”
Something clicked between Anthony and the herd. Partly it was their majesty – imperious, unstoppable, challenging – but also their vulnerability. During their capture the group’s matriarch and her baby had been shot. If Anthony couldn’t contain them, the remaining nine would go the same way. He had to make them trust him to prevent them from escaping.
At first the communication was physical – he got used to being near them, albeit in his Land Rover, and he let them get used to him. His approach was instinctive, learned by slowly building up a trusting relationship with the herd, edging closer then backing away, learning when to approach and when to steer clear. Inquisitive and powerful, they ripped off his wing mirrors and windscreen wipers, stole the spare wheel from the back and bumped the vehicle so much it started to look like a stock racing car.
As time passed the communication between Anthony and the herd became more complex. Anthony bonded particularly with the matriarch, Nana, developing an understanding of her mood and intentions and, as far as he’s concerned, she did the same to him.
“They are amazing,” he says, eyes sparkling. “They have these incredible abilities. A frog croaks out a mating call to the pond he lives in, that’s it. Elephants communicate over hundreds and hundreds of miles.”
He tells me about a study at Cornell University, the Elephant Listening Project, which measured the low stomach rumbles emitted by elephants. It established that they are a type of communication, like whale song. These sound waves showed that elephants were much more intelligent than had been previously thought. Anthony applauds the science but he didn’t need it, he knew from personal experience that direct, two-way communication with the herd was possible.
“They are so intelligent. I can’t even describe it,” he says. “When you’re standing next to them, the feeling they emit is almost overwhelming. You can almost bathe in the emotion that comes off them. They’re not going trumpet, trumpet, grunt, grunt. They are communicating, there’s no question.”
Anthony is convinced that elephants understand human states of mind and emotions. And it’s hard to dispute it from his experiences. Having got himself a reputation by taking on the herd, Anthony was then asked to rescue a young female elephant whose entire family had been shot and who had been sold to a trophy hunter. He brought her to Thula Thula and started to build a relationship with her. He hid close by for days and weeks, letting the youngster get used to him. He let her charge him to build her confidence. He named her “enfant terrible” and believed she’d recover. But then she started to distance herself, “walking endlessly in large figures of eight, oblivious to her surroundings”. Anthony decided to go to the herd for help. He sought them out in the bush and led them back to the traumatised orphan. Then he watched “entranced” as they linked trunks over the fence. The herd understood what was needed. They looked after the young elephant.
He describes seeing them together as he drove back home: “They were still in single file but already the pecking order had been established. ET was second-last, holding the tail of the elephant in front with Mnumzane (another of the herd] behind her. He was resting his trunk on her back as they moved along. Comforting her.”
Anthony is enthralled by elephants but he’s also clear about his role. He developed the relationship with the herd as a “reluctant necessity”. Preventing their escape meant he had to find a way to communicate with them. But he has no interest in making them anything other than wild. Guests who come to stay at Thula Thula often expect him to call the herd out of the bush for their entertainment. It’s a trick he never performs.
“I don’t interact with them for guests,” he says. “I get some upset guests but if I do that, where are we? They’re not wild, they’re not tame, and we’ll end up with trouble. They have to go completely wild again.”
Anthony is passionate about the need for a connection to nature and adventure, but he’s no sap. He’s got no time for “bunny huggers” and he’s motivated by results. You can see why he’s ruffled feathers.
The kinds of danger Anthony’s faced have not only been from wild animals in the bush. He’s been the target for kidnap threats and the enemy of trigger-happy poachers and his direct approach has provoked criticism from other conservationists. He negotiated with the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda over the plight of the white rhino. Faced with criticism for dealing with a faction that is believed to have used child soldiers and committed a catalogue of atrocities, Anthony is unrepentant.
“I don’t care about that because we do actually get results,” he says. “Not every time maybe, and we’re not perfect, but we do achieve things.
“The white rhino is their spiritual totem. They said there were lots of them around and I told them that they were wrong. There are only 15 left. They believed it and they signed a contract that they added to the ceasefire saying that they wouldn’t attack the rhinos or the rangers.” Such is the relationship Anthony has with the group that a recent accusation of an attack on a rhino prompted a phonecall from the LRA to Anthony directly to deny involvement.
In 2003 Anthony made another of his interventions. He travelled into the heart of Iraq, in a hire car stuffed with veterinary supplies, to rescue the animals abandoned to starvation and death in Baghdad Zoo. It was a brave and in some senses a completely outrageous act. How did he know what way to drive? He just went in the opposite direction to everyone else. What about when he heard gunfire? He says they just drove away from it. His efforts earned him a medal from the US Army and the story is being made into a film for release next year.
If Anthony is interested in media attention he does a good job of hiding it. For him it’s about the animals. He’s evangelical about the potential of the bush and the need to reinvigorate our connection with nature.
Anthony is relentlessly positive about the natural world and only too aware of the threats it faces. After his experiences in Baghdad he drafted a resolution for the UN, Wildlife in War Zones, which if passed would give protection to game reserves, veterinary services and zoos, and the people running them. At times of war, it would protect the environment, too.
“Any wilful destruction of the environment or nature in conflict would be a war crime,” he says. “And we’re getting support from all over the world for it. It’s been well received at the UN and so it really could happen.”
he’s focusing close to home, too. Eco-tourism, conservation and working with local communities is what is needed in Africa, according to Anthony. His ultimate vision is not that there will be game reserves, but that there will be no need for them because communities will be inextricably linked into conservation. Why? Because he’s seen what happens to game reserves when the goodwill runs out, conflicts erupt or political will evaporates.
“Go to Uganda, go to the Congo,” he says. “They aren’t game reserves anymore, they’ve gone to hell. And that’ll happen everywhere unless we do this. It’s so important. These game reserves are so vulnerable, they are like little Noah’s Arks, containing some of the most endangered species.”
Anthony has been a pivotal player in setting up the Royal Zulu Game Reserve, a massive conglomeration of land based on agreement from tribes that land will be linked to conservation practices. It’s taken a long time, but finally, there’s an agreement.
“It’s going to be unbelievable: five Zulu tribes who are traditionally enemies, coming together to put their own land into conservation. It’s unheard of.”
Ask him how he explains it and there’s no hesitation.
“Thirteen years,” he says without pause. “And hundreds and hundreds of meetings.”
So what motivates him?
“Life only survives because of the inter-relationships that have built up over millions of years. It’s a fragile web and we’re ripping holes in it. We talk about endangered species but if man continues the way we’re going we’ll be an endangered species. We have to rebuild those links to the plant and animal kingdoms. We have to.”
Anthony’s real insight into conservation came from the herd of elephants that was close to being shot. The relationship that he built with them transformed his understanding, not only of the animals themselves, but also of what he could do. So how are they now?
“Wonderful,” he says, beaming. “We had a new baby a week ago. I have been really cutting down on contact. The matriarch, Nana, and Frankie, I never go to them but if they see me around, they’ll come. But the youngsters I don’t have anything to do with. they’re going back to the wild, which is what I want.
“The thing with elephants is that no matter what kind of fence you put up they can break it down. Today, although we’ve got all these fences around our game reserve they’re staying there because they’re happy. They can go anytime they want and yet they stay, because they’re happy.”
I’ve read that when he returns after travelling, they’re often near the house, waiting for him. Will they be there this time?
“It’s the strangest thing. I was away in Jo’burg last week for three days and I got back and within an hour of me arriving they were there. It happens 99 per cent of the time. It staggers me.” sm
• The Elephant Whisperer: Learning About Life, Loyalty and Freedom from a Remarkable Herd of Elephants by Lawrence Anthony (with Graham Spence) is published by Pan Macmillan, £12.99.