When Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a rogue herd of elephants in his reserve in South Africa, it was the last chance for these elephants. If Anthony didn’t take them, they would be shot. But he had no experience with elephants at all. What was he to do?
Take them on, of course!
What follows is an exciting and heartwarming series of adventures, in which Anthony learns about elephants and becomes part of their family. Full of both triumph and tragedy, The Elephant Whisperer, is a fascinating and unforgettable account of living with the majestic elephant.
About the Author
Lawrence Anthony“The Indiana Jones of Conservation” (The Guardian, UK)was an acclaimed conservationist who received the UN’s Earth Day award for his work in Baghdad. Graham Spence is a journalist and editor who lives in England. Together they are the authors of the bestselling Babylon's Arc and The Last Rhinos.
Thea Feldman has written many popular children’s books, including Navy SEAL Dogs, a YA adaptation of the bestselling Trident K9 Warriors by Mike Ritland. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Crack! I heard a rifle go off in the distance.
I jumped out of my chair. Then came a burst ... crack-crack- crack. Flocks of squawking birds flew off.
Poachers. On the western boundary.
David, my game ranger, was already sprinting for the Land Rover. I grabbed a shotgun and leapt into the driver's seat. Max, my Staffordshire bull terrier, scrambled onto the seat between us.
As I turned the ignition key and floored the accelerator, David grabbed the two-way radio.
"Ndonga!" he bellowed. "Ndonga, are you receiving? Over!"
Ndonga was the head of my Ovambo guards and a good man to have on your side in a gunfight. But only static greeted David's attempts to contact him. So we powered on alone.
Poachers had been our biggest problem ever since my then-fiancée, Françoise, and I had bought Thula Thula. I couldn't work out who they were or where they were coming from. I had spoken with the izinduna, the headmen, of the surrounding Zulu groups. They firmly stated that their people were not involved. I believed them. They also claimed our problems were coming from inside the reserve, but I didn't think that could be true. I had found our employees to be extremely loyal.
It was almost twilight. I slowed as we approached the western fence, killed the headlights, and pulled over behind a large anthill. We eased through a cluster of acacia trees, our nerves on edge, trigger fingers tense, watching and listening. As any game ranger in Africa knows, professional poachers will shoot to kill.
The fence was just fifty yards away. Poachers like to have their escape route open. I motioned to David. He would keep watch while I crawled to the fence to cut off the poachers' retreat if a firefight broke out.
The smell of gunshot spiced the evening air. It hung like a veil in the silence. In Africa, the animals in the bush are only quiet after gunshots.
After a few minutes of absolute stillness, I switched on my flashlight and swept its beam up and down the fence. There were no cuts in it, no holes made by a poacher to get in. And there were no tracks or blood trail to indicate that an animal had been killed and dragged off.
There was nothing but an eerie silence.
Just then, we heard more shots. These came from the eastern edge of the reserve. I realized we had been set up.
Someone had shot off a gun outside the western edge of the reserve to get us to come this way. Now the poachers were shooting nyala — beautiful antelopes — on the far side, at least a forty-five-minute drive away.
We jumped back into the Land Rover and sped off, but I knew it was pointless. The poachers would be off the reserve before we even got close.
I now knew, though, that this was a well-organized criminal operation led by someone who followed our every move. The izinduna were right. It had to be someone from the inside. How else could they have timed everything so perfectly?
It was pitch-dark when we arrived at the eastern edge of the reserve and traced the scene with our flashlights. We could see flattened, bloodstained grass from where two nyala carcasses had been dragged to and through a hole in the fence. The hole had been crudely hacked with bolt cutters. About ten yards outside the fence were the muddy tracks of a vehicle. That vehicle would, by now, be miles away. The animals would be sold to local butchers who would use them for biltong, a dried meat jerky, which is very popular throughout Africa.
The name Thula Thula means "peace and tranquility" in Zulu, and when I bought the land, I vowed no animal would be needlessly killed on my watch. At the time, I didn't realize how difficult that vow would be to keep.
The next day I received a phone call from Marion Garaï of the Elephant Managers and Owners Association (EMOA), an elephant-welfare organization made up of several elephant owners in South Africa.
Marion wanted to know if I would be interested in adopting a herd of elephants. Before I could answer, she added that except for the costs of capturing and transporting the elephants, I could have them for free. That, she said, was the good news.
You could have knocked me over with a blade of grass. Elephants? A whole herd of the world's largest land mammals? For a moment I thought it was a joke. I mean, how often do you get called out of the blue and asked if you want a herd of tuskers?
But Marion was serious.
I asked, "What's the bad news?"
Apparently the elephants were considered "troublesome." They tended to break out of reserves, and their current owners wanted to get rid of them fast. If we didn't take them, Marion said, they would be put down — shot. All of them.
"How do they break out?" I asked.
"The matriarch has figured out how to break through electric fences. She just twists the wire around her tusks until it snaps. Or she takes the pain and smashes through. It's unbelievable," said Marion. "The owners have had enough and have now asked EMOA to figure something out."
I pictured the female head of the herd, a five-ton beast, dealing with the shock of 8,000 volts of electricity stabbing through her body. That took determination.
"Also, Lawrence, there are babies involved. I've heard you have a way with animals," she continued. "I reckon Thula Thula's right for them. You're right for them. Or maybe they're right for you."
That floored me. If anything, we were exactly not right for a herd of elephants. I was only just getting the reserve up and running properly. And, as the previous day had shown, I was having huge problems with highly organized poachers.
I was about to say no when something held me back. I have always loved elephants. Not only are they the largest and noblest land creatures on this planet, but they symbolize all that is majestic about Africa. And here, unexpectedly, I was being offered my own herd and a chance to help. Would I ever get an opportunity like this again?
"Where're they from?" I asked Marion.
"A reserve in Mpumalanga."
Mpumalanga is the northeastern province of South Africa where most of the country's game reserves — including Kruger National Park — are located.
"Nine. Three adult females, three youngsters, of which one is male, an adolescent bull, and two babies. It's a beautiful family. The matriarch has a gorgeous baby daughter. The young bull, her son, is fifteen years old and an absolutely superb specimen."
"They must be a big problem. Nobody just gives away elephants."
"As I said, the matriarch keeps breaking out. Not only does she snap electric wires, she's also learned how to unlatch gates with her tusks, and the owners aren't too keen about jumbos wandering into the guest camps. If you don't take them, they will be shot. Certainly the adults will be."
I went quiet, trying to unravel all this in my head. The opportunity was great, but so was the risk.
What about the poachers? Would the promise of ivory, an expensive and highly prized material made from an elephant's tusks, bring even more of them out of the woods? What about having to electrify my entire reserve to prevent the giant pachyderms from breaking out? What about having to build an enclosure to quarantine them when they first arrived?
Also, were they just escape artists? Or was this a genuine rogue herd, too dangerous and filled with hatred of humans to keep on a game reserve in a populated area?
The details didn't matter. They were a herd in trouble.
"Yes," I said. "I'll take them."
I was reeling from the shock of becoming an instant elephant-owner, when I got another one. The current owners wanted the herd off their property within two weeks. Otherwise the deal would be off, and the elephants would be shot. Unfortunately, when an animal as large as an elephant is considered "troublesome," it is almost always shot.
Two weeks? In that time, we had to repair and electrify twenty miles of big game fencing and build a strong quarantine boma — a holding pen — from scratch. We had to build a fence around the boma and electrify it with enough mega-volts to prevent a ten-thousand-pound animal from breaking out. The electrical force is not supposed to injure the elephants; it's just supposed to warn them off. It was also vital that the boma's fence be identical to the reserve's outer fence. If the elephants learned that bumping into the boma's fence was not much fun, then later, when they had free range of the reserve, they would steer clear of the border fences, too.
There was no way we were going to be able to do all that in just two weeks, but we would certainly give it a try.
I made David my right-hand man on the project. I then asked the Zulu staff to put the word out among the local community that we needed workers. Over the next two days, hordes of people showed up outside Thula Thula's gates, clamoring for work. Hundreds of thousands of people in rural Africa live close to the edge. I was glad to be able to contribute to the community.
To keep the amakhosi, the local chieftains, on our side, I met with them to explain what we were doing.
In record time, we were up and running. Despite the impossible deadline, a fence slowly crept up across the countryside, and I began to breathe easier.
Then we ran into another problem.
David sprinted into the office. "Bad news, boss. Workers on the western boundary have put down their tools. They say they're being shot at. Everyone's too scared to work. What do we do?"
"Let's try and find out what's going on," I answered. "In the meantime, we don't have much choice. Pay off those too jittery to work and let's get replacements. We've got to keep moving."
I also gave instructions for a group of security guards to be placed on standby to protect the remaining workers.
The next morning David came running again.
"Man, we've got real problems," he said, catching his breath. "They're shooting again, and one of the workers is down."
I grabbed my old rifle, and the two of us sped to the fence in the Land Rover. Most of the workers were crouching behind trees, while a couple of them tended to another worker who had been hit in the face by heavy shotgun pellets.
After checking that the man's wounds were not life-threatening, we started crisscrossing the bush until we picked up the tracks, or spoor as it is called in Africa. It belonged to a single gunman, not a group, as we had initially feared. I sent Bheki and my security induna, or foreman, Ngwenya, whose name means "crocodile" in Zulu, to track the gunman. David and I would stay and protect the workers.
Bheki and Ngwenya spotted the gunman and exchanged fire with him, but the shooter disappeared into the thick bush. To their surprise, they knew him. He was a hunter from another Zulu village some miles away.
We drove the injured worker to the hospital and called the police. The guards identified the gunman, and the cops raided his thatched hut, where they seized an old shotgun. He confessed without any hint of shame that he was a professional poacher. Then he blamed us for building an electric fence that would deprive him of his livelihood. He would no longer be able break into Thula Thula so easily. He denied trying to kill anyone, though. Instead, he said he just wanted to scare off the workers and stop the fence from being finished.
His shotgun was a battered, rusty, double-barrel 12-bore, held together with vinyl electrical tape. There was no way this was also the person responsible for our major poaching problem.
So who was?
After this incident, construction continued from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. It was backbreaking work, sweaty and dirty, and during the day temperatures soared to 110 degrees. But mile by mile, the electric fence inched northward, then cut east.
Building the boma was also grueling, though on a far smaller scale. We measured out 110 square yards of bush and cemented nine-foot-tall, heavy-duty poles into concrete foundations every twelve yards. Then coils of hardened mesh and a trio of cables as thick as a man's thumb were strung tightly between the poles.
No bush fence will hold a determined elephant without electrified or "hot" wires. We ran four hot wires along the poles. Two energizers run off car batteries would generate the "juice."
Touching a hot wire is not fatal, but the shock is excruciating, even to an elephant with an inch-thick hide. I have experienced the massive punch of a wire's electricity firsthand, several times. I have accidentally touched a wire during repairs or hit one while carelessly waving my arms in animated conversation, much to the amusement of my rangers. The electricity seizes and surprises you. Your body shudders, and unless you let go quickly, you sit down involuntarily as your legs collapse. The only good thing is that you recover quickly enough.
Once the fence was up, the final task was to chop down any trees that an elephant could push over and onto the wires. That is an elephant's favorite way to snap the current.
A boma fence.
The two-week deadline passed in the blink of an eye and, of course, we were nowhere near finished, despite having had men working around the clock on the boma. We even worked by car lights at night.
Soon the telephones started jangling with the Mpumalanga reserve managers wanting to know what was going on.
"Everything's fine," I boomed cheerfully over the phone, lying through my teeth. If they knew the problems we had with unrealistic deadlines and workers being shot at by a rogue gunman, they probably would have called the deal off.
Then one day we got the call I dreaded.
The herd had broken out again, and this time damaged three of the reserve's lodges. We were bluntly told that unless we took the elephants immediately, the owners would have to make a "decision."
Françoise fielded the call. She crossed her fingers and said we only needed to get our elephant proofing approved by KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Wildlife, the province's official authority.
Somehow the owners believed her and reluctantly agreed to an extension. But just a few more days, they warned, or else there would be a "decision."
That word again.
The workers were exhausted and still hammering in fence nails when the Mpumalanga reserve manager phoned to say he could wait no longer and was sending the elephants, ready or not. The pachyderms were being loaded as we spoke and would arrive at Thula Thula within eighteen hours.
I hurriedly called KZN Wildlife to come and inspect the boma. Fortunately, they said an inspector would be at Thula Thula within a couple of hours.
David and I sped down for a final look-see. I wanted everything to be perfect. But while we were double-checking that all trees were beyond toppling distance from the fence, I realized that something didn't look right.
Then I saw the problem. The fence, including the heavy-duty cables, had been strung up on the outside of the poles instead of on the inside of the poles. That meant the poles provided flimsy support, at best. If an elephant braved the power and leaned on the mesh, it would rip off the posts like paper. The inspector would see this instantly and not approve the fence. The truck would be turned back, and the herd sent to certain death.
I clenched my fists in exasperation. How could we make such a basic error? And why hadn't I noticed it before? It was too late to do anything about it. The dust mushrooming above the savannah signaled the inspector's arrival. I hoped we could bluff our way through, but inwardly I despaired. The elephant rescue project was doomed before it began.
The inspector was a decent guy and knew his business. He made particular note of a large tambouti tree with gnarled bark that was close to the fence. Tambouti is an exceptionally hard wood, and the inspector remarked that not even an elephant could snap this particularly "muscular" tree. He deemed it safe.
Then he went to check the meshing, and my mouth went dry. Surely he'd notice the wire was on the wrong side. But to my gut-churning relief, he didn't spot the obvious mistake. The boma was given the green light. I now had my crucial authorization.
When the inspector left, I summoned every available hand to secure the fence correctly before the elephants arrived. While we were working, I got the news that the herd's matriarch and her baby had been shot during the capture. The justification was that she was "bad news" and would lead breakouts at Thula Thula. I was stunned. This was exactly what we were fighting to prevent.
I understood the reasoning behind the choice to kill the matriarch. Because elephants are so big and dangerous, if they create problems and pose a risk to lodges and tourists, it is quite common for them to be shot. I felt that decision, however, should have been mine to make.
I was convinced that I would be able to settle the herd in their new home. I had been prepared to take the risk of accepting the escape-artist matriarch and her baby and to work with her. This killing cemented my determination to save the rest of the herd.
Excerpted from "The Elephant Whisperer"
Copyright © 2009 Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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