Posted in Books

Review: The Elephant Whisperer – Lawrence Anthony.

My awareness of Lawrence Anthony’s work was purely incidental. I would be looking out for elephant news and he was always there in You tube in a time when we still did not have whatsapp or google. I am sure i have watched the video of elephants mourning his demise. What a blessed life. He could have lived longer, but the stress of running the reserve must have told upon his health. This we understand as we turn page after page of his book ‘the elephant whisperer.’

As Anthony makes it clear at the outset, the elephant whisperer is not him but the elephant in question that spoke to him. This book has been on my reading list now for years. Finally got my hands on it (kindle version). Comes second to Tanya James’ ‘the tusk that did the damage’ on the elephant scene in India that centers around the menacing poaching issue we have in the country for the precious tusks of the elephants. (Same is true of Indian single horned rhinos as well in the state of Assam, similar to the precarious situation of the double horned rhinos of Africa that are nearly hunted down to extinction already. Anthony’s ‘the last rhino’ is on the rhinos). Until this book happened I believed, the Indian wild elephant escaped poaching even if unhealthily domesticated at an alarming rate.

My introduction to the Zulus and Bantus, the native tribes of South Africa happened in my ninth standard I guess, when I read for the first time a James Hadley Chase novel ‘the vulture is a patient bird.’ It is because of the content i remember the title and the tribes. I can say this may have been a chief reason for my interests in Africa including its wildlife. Later on of course, there was Wilbur Smith. Literally every single trilogy or whatever of his I read with, mainly for the wildlife info even if it was all fiction. ‘The elephant song’ of his was special. The matriarch comes through in Smith’s works. I would like to skip his latest works that I wouldn’t attribute to him, probably penned under his name by someone else (like in the case of Sidney Sheldon). They don’t carry the same Smith stamp. If you have been reading Wilbur Smith, you must be familiar with entire Africa from Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia to Congo, South Africa, Zaire and Zambia (both of erstwhile Rhodesia) and more. You learn of the languages such as Swahili. You discover the native tribes, the shortest men, the yellow men, the spear throwers, the trackers etc. You develop a deep respect for the dark continent that has been mindlessly exploited and now made a complete mess. I agree with Anthony on the violence aspect about Africa which has to keep with its wild nature. Apartheid is long since over. Afrikaners and the other remaining whites are doing a wonderful service to the conservation causes in Africa in the present, even if it was their ancestors who nearly brought the native wildlife to the brink of extinction in the first place. Still the current conservation efforts must not be underestimated or disrespected. This is very much the need of the hour.

Unlike fellow Indians, I am totally against domestication of our Indian wild elephants for Hindu temple service and for gala events like Navaratri-Dusshera celebrations in Mysore palace grounds in the name of culture, heritage and traditions. I have been vociferous over this capturing and taming of wild Indian elephants from the jungles, earning quite a few adversaries in the process. But here end my feeble protests. NGOs for wildlife and elephant lovers have to take the mantle from well-wishers and whistleblowers (!) like me at this stage.

My piece on temple elephants in India captured from wild for domestication, inspired by Lawrence Anthony’s ‘the Elephant whisperer’

I wish India has someone like Lawrence Anthony to save our wild elephants from poachers, regain the lost elephant corridors and conserve the population from going to extinction inevitably in a century or two.

wild Indian elephants faring no better…

The book is a treat to elephant lovers and naturalists and conservationists. It is enjoyable and good learning guide for anyone for that matter. Those of us who are keen on safaris must know what it takes to run a show.

Lawrence Anthony confirmed what I had read about the pachyderms over years: that the elephants communicate very intelligently in a unique way both physical and metaphysical, with their stomach rumblings in a very low frequency inaudible to human ears that therefore fail to pick up the jumbo communication. So that way, quite like the whales, the elephant community too may be much more evolved than us homo sapiens when it comes to tele communication. It is not without a reason that these giant mammals have survived and roamed planet earth many millions of years. The other way the elephants communicate is by tactile contact in the bush. The infrared waves of elephant whispers probably serve as transmission conduits to reach over herds spread across entire landmass of Africa which is stunning! Science may prove theories in labs but here was this dauntless conservationist living the experience to relate his story to the world. To me his well lived life and real time observation suffice as authentic proof to elephant telepathy we talk about including the long elephantine memory. The tuskers’ moving vigil for two days on Lawrence’s demise is the testimonial ultimate for what Lawrence recorded in his book: “The most important lesson i learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves.

Anthony also in the course of his writing introduces us to the lush and rich spectrum of his natural reserve Thula Thula:

  • mongoose, warthog, tawny eagle, martial eagle, impala, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, nyala, baboon, black mumba, black python, bark spider, leguaan (african monitor lizard), duiker, southern white rhino, honey badgers, crocs, barbel (fish), cape buffalo … and of course elephants
  • (noctural creatures): bush pigs, giant eagle owl, vondos, bush rats, nightjars, bats, bushbabies, hyenas, leopard, lynx, serval
  • reptilians: Black mumba, puff adder, mozambican cobra
  • trees native to Africa: Acacia robusta, marula, boerbeen, fig, umbrella thorn tree
  • the winged nesters: plum coloured starlings, european rollers, bush shrike, narina trojans, gwala gwala, vultures

What a spectacular life Anthony lived! Added bonus was his elephants whispering to him accepting him as one among them. Nana and Frankie, the matriarchs in particular shared a wavelength with Anthony, able to reach him. Here i have to mention Anthony’s intention of keeping the wildlife feral and so his deliberate breaking up of connection with the tuskers so that the herd moves deeper into the bush far from human contact for their own sake. This was also necessary as Anthony felt that this way, the elephants will stay wary of poachers (or any humans for that matter).

When I was reading about the way Anthony was spending long and perilous nights in the bush to safekeep the elephants in the boma when they were traumatized, rowdy and tyrant, i couldn’t stop myself from admiring the man for not only his courage but also for his big heart that did not hesitate to sacrifice creature comforts to settle down the disturbed gang in his reserve. The herd mistrusted human beings having been subject to witnessing massacre of their family members. The move by truck and darting (with tranquilizers) had dazed them and made them more violent and edgy. Anthony however focused only on rehabilitation of the elephants on their new home winning their confidence and trust gradually. In the process he did not lose his patience or hope even for a minute. He believed sincerely, the elephants deserved a chance. It was a painstakingly done work worth its rich dividends. You have to be gifted for sharing such a compassion for wildlife to be going this extra mile. As Anthony himself says, one has to probably grow up in the bush with the right mindset to be able to work or live in this kind of nature’s setting. It is a tough but rewarding life for those with a passion for conversation. Only that, your physical fitness must match the demanding conditions of the life in the veldt. And African tribes like the Zulus of warrior blood naturally fit in their roles as armed rangers of the reserve. Having to share their living space with Africa’s rich wildlife and having a history, they are the natural choice for the maintenance and running of the Zululand sanctuary in the heartland of South Africa.

Anthony speak:

  • Living rough in the wilderness is a salve for the soul. Ancient instincts awaken; forgotten skills are relearned, consciousness is sharpened and life thrums at a rich tempo.
  • No matter how heart-wrenching the situation, we never interfered with nature. Brutal as the food chain is, that’s the balance of life in the wild.
  • Interesting observation on fright-flight distance, innovative game keeping methods, round the clock alertness and an equally enthusiastic team of rangers, merit a mention. Bush piloting and crane lifting on darting are familiar with us in India where latter methods are employed when it comes to dealing with the tuskers.

    What I consider firsthand research material about Anthony’s work may be the elephant communication information and Askari (male elephants led by an ageing patriarch) observations in particular apart from breeding habits of different fauna. Valuable input for future wildlife studies and conservationists. Kudos to his diplomacy with the native tribes. In today’s highly jingoistic egoistic material world, we need this kind of trendsetter. In another part of the book, Anthony says, it is the elephant who is the tone setter for the relationship shared between him and the herd. He goes on to narrate how each and every member of the family enriched his life and added dimensions to his perspective on the African elephant.

    Serious poaching threats from armed gangs and sharpshooters fitted to their teeth, the uneasy relationship Anthony shared with Nkosi Biyela and the Indunas in general whose ancient zululand is the reserve, the epidemics waiting to devastate wildlife if unchecked, the brutal forest fires, the rogue beasts on prowl (like the male elephant Mnumzane in musth that had to be put down) endangering not only safaris but also other wildlife (with Mnumzane shearing white female rhino to death with his tusk), natural disasters such as river flooding and breaking banks, the maintenance of full length electric fence with low voltage just to stun the wildlife from crossing over but not kill, the challenge of balancing the wildlife population that ensures the survival of the fittest in accordance with the food chain, nerve wracking dealings with the superstitious African tribes not antagonizing the sons of the oil, the law and order issues to be taken up with law enforcement, the follow up with KNZ of whatever, the wildlife departments and reserve sanctuaries of South Africa, … and much much more need to be addressed on day-to-day basis running a wildlife reserve as vast and teeming with diverse wildlife as Thula Thula.. And if the reserve is to boast of a safari lodge like Thula Thula, the challenge is many more time magnified, keeping in view the safety of the tourists. The days start well before dawn for a safari and end with the last of the tourists hitting the sack as Anthony explains. Lawrence’s wife Francoise now in charge of Thula Thula seems to have lent a French touch to the holiday resort with her exotic cuisine, a big draw with the visitors naturally. Game sighting is adventure like nothing else. Only those who have sampled this heady brew of thrill will know why nature and wildlife can be such a humbling and invigorating experience at the same time, making one even spiritual. You connect with your basal instincts when you confront all forms of life from the millipede, centipede and scorpions and spiders to the crocodiles and rhinos and bucks and antelopes and the giant elephants under trees as ancient as you can imagine, with their gnarled roots and spread branches sporting myriad coloured winged nesters. A profusion of life in the natural element. Nightlife in the wild is another symphony. What a welcome break from the cacophony of our urban materialistic life.

    birth control not for Indian wild elephants…

    Hopefully land acquisition for expansion of Thula Thula is now done with, which can provide the wildlife in the reserve more of room to amble about. Anthony also gainfully employed the local manpower which is mutually beneficial. Let’s see. I have always dreamt about a Kenya or Tanzania or even an Uganda or Zimbabwe safari, but never South African. My interest in South Africa got piqued with the Netflix serial ‘the penguin town.’ Now I have ‘Thula Thula’ too in my bucketlist! Hopefully i can make it with my entire family there in a couple of years, along with my grandchildren in tow! How i would luv to show my grandkids Nana and Frankie!

    My first ever elephant write-up. The original draft may be from over 10 years back…

    Anthony not a serious contender for Noble prize in lit still his south African lingo is something! Good sense of humour there. That supersized vacuum cleaner of an elephant trunk! Menopausal rhino!

    Rounding up with Lawrence Anthony quote: THE BEST CAGE IS NO CAGE. Om Shanthi!

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