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The Elephant Whisperer: How Re-Homing a Violent Herd . . .

You are here: Bush-Talk Forum General Information Books East Africa The Elephant Whisperer: How Re-Homing a Violent Herd . . .

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The Elephant Whisperer: How Re-Homing a Violent Herd . . .

Link to this post 25 Jun 09

The elephant whisperer: How re-homing a violent herd was the start of a unique relationship between man and giant beast

Last updated at 8:20 AM on 25th May 2009

They were a herd of violent rogue elephants destined to be shot. He was their last hope for survival. What happened next was extraordinary.

When Lawrence Anthony was asked to re-home a herd of rogue elephants on his private game reserve, he accepted - and found himself fighting a desperate battle for survival.

The story of how he went on to win the hearts - and trust - of an enraged and troubled herd is the subject of a new book, The Elephant Whisperer. Here, in our exclusive first extract, Lawrence, 59, who was raised in the bush and lives on his reserve with his wife, Françoise, describes the beginnings of a remarkable relationship between man and giant beast.
It was 4.45am and I was standing in front of Nana, an enraged wild elephant, pleading with her in desperation. Both our lives depended on it. The only thing separating us was an 8,000-volt electric fence that she was preparing to flatten and make her escape.

'Don't do it, Nana,' I said, as calmly as I could. She stood there, motionless but tense. The rest of the herd froze. 'This is your home now,' I continued. 'Please don't do it, girl.' I felt her eyes boring into me. 'They'll kill you all if you break out. This is your home now. You have no need to run any more.'

Amazing relationship: Lawrence with the elephant herd matriarch, Nana
Suddenly, the absurdity of the situation struck me. Here I was in pitch darkness, talking to a wild female elephant with a baby, the most dangerous possible combination, as if we were having a friendly chat. But I meant every word. 'You will all die if you go. Stay here. I will be here with you and it's a good place.'
She took another step forward. I could see her tense up again, preparing to snap the electric wire and be out, the rest of the herd smashing after her in a flash. I was in their path, and would only have seconds to scramble out of their way and climb the nearest tree. I wondered if I would be fast enough to avoid being trampled. Possibly not.

Then something happened between Nana and me, some tiny spark of recognition, flaring for the briefest of moments. Then it was gone. Nana turned and melted into the bush. The rest of the herd followed. I couldn't explain what had happened between us, but it gave me the first glimmer-of hope since the elephants had first thundered into my life.

It had all started several weeks earlier with a phone call out of the blue from an elephant welfare organisation. Would I be interested in adopting a herd of elephants?

But there was a problem. These elephants, who lived on a game reserve 600 miles to the north, were ' troublesome.' They had a tendency to break out of reserves and the owners wanted to get rid of them fast. If we didn't take them, they would be shot.

The woman explained, 'The matriarch is an amazing escape artist and has worked out how to break through electric fences. She just twists the wire around her tusks until it snaps, or takes the pain and smashes through.'
'Why me?' I asked.

'I've heard you have a way with animals. You're right for them. Or maybe they're right for you.'

That floored me. We were absolutely 'not right' for a herd of elephants, as our reserve was barely operational.

Born in Johannesburg and raised in remote rural Africa, I had been a nature lover throughout my childhood. After becoming a conservationist in my teens, I finally bought Thula Thula, a 5,000-acre reserve in South Africa, in 1998. Now, a year later, I had just two weeks to electrify 20 miles of boundary fences and build a stockade sturdy enough to keep a herd of troubled elephants in.

Freedom bid: When the elephants escaped they had to be darted with sedatives before being brought back to the newly-reinforced enclosure. It was almost complete when I heard the news that one of the mothers and her baby had been shot while trying to evade capture. I was devastated, and this killing cemented my determination to save the rest of the herd.

When they arrived, they were thumping the inside of the trailer like a gigantic drum. We sedated them with a pole-sized syringe, and once they had calmed down, the door slid open and the matriarch emerged, followed by her baby bull, three females and an 11-year-old bull. The last one was the 15-year-old son of the dead other. He stared at us, flared his ears and with a trumpet of rage, charged, pulling up just short of the fence in front of us.

His mother and baby sister had been shot before his eyes, and here he was, just a teenager, defending his herd. David, my head ranger, named him Mnumzane, which in Zulu means 'Sir'. We christened the matriarch Nana, and the second female-in-command, the most feisty, Frankie, after my wife.

We had erected a giant enclosure within the reserve to keep them safe until they became calm enough to move out into the reserve proper.

Nana gathered her clan, loped up to the fence and stretched out her trunk, touching the electric wires. The 8,000-volt charge sent a jolt shuddering through her bulk. She backed off. Then, with her family in tow, she strode the entire perimeter of the enclosure, pointing her trunk at the wire to check for vibrations from the electric current.

As I went to bed that night, I noticed the elephants lining up along the fence, facing out towards their former home. It looked ominous. I was woken several hours later by one of the reserve's rangers, shouting, 'The elephants have gone! They've broken out!' The two adult elephants had worked as a team to fell a tree, smashing it onto the electric fence and then charging out of the enclosure. I scrambled together a search party and we raced to the border of the game reserve, but we were too late. The fence was down and the animals had broken out.

They had somehow found the generator that powered the electric fence around the reserve. After trampling it like a tin can, they had pulled the concrete-embedded fence posts out of the ground like matchsticks, and headed north.
Frankie with her young: Lawrence lived with the elephant herd to bond with them
Three miles away, they were spotted by a motorist. But we weren't the only ones chasing them. We met a group of locals carrying large calibre rifles, who claimed the elephants were 'fair game' now. On our radios we heard the wildlife authorities were issuing elephant rifles to staff. It was now a simple race against time.
It took one helicopter, a search party and two days before we found them in open ground. We darted them with sedatives and bought them back to the newly-reinforced enclosure. But their bid for freedom had, if anything, increased their resentment at being kept in captivity.

Nana watched my every move, hostility seeping from every pore, her family behind her. There was no doubt that sooner or later they were going to make another break for freedom.

Then, in a flash, came the answer. I would live with the herd. To save their lives, I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them. But, most importantly, be with them day and night. We all had to get to know each other. David agreed to join me in a new home - my Land Rover, which we parked just outside the elephants' enclosure so we could observe their every move. That night, he woke me.

'Quick. Something's happening at the fence.' An enormous shape morphed in front of me. It was Nana, ten yards from the fence, her baby son by her side and the other elephants behind her. Nana took a step forward. 'That bloody electric wire had better hold,' David said.

Without thinking I walked towards the fence. Nana was directly ahead of me. 'Don't do it, Nana,' I said. 'Please don't do it, girl.'

And so it was that I pleaded with Nana in our life-or-death confrontation - and we connected in a magical way for just a split second, where she seemed to understand exactly what I was saying.

But, by the next day, the naked aggression and agitation was back. I patrolled the fence daily, deliberately speaking loudly so the elephants heard my voice. Sometimes I would even sing. If I caught Nana's attention I would look directly at her, telling her this was her new home.

But each morning, at precisely 4.45am, Nana would line up the herd, facing north. She would tense up, yards from the fence, and for ten adrenaline-soaked minutes I would stand up to her, pleading for their lives. It was always touch and go and my relief as she ghosted back into the bush with her family was absolute.

Just after sunrise one morning, a month after the elephants' arrival, I glanced up to see Nana and her baby at the fence near where we'd parked the Land Rover. As I stood, Nana lifted her trunk and looked straight at me. Her ears were down and she was calm. Instinctively I decided to go to her. I stopped about three yards from the fence and gazed up at the gigantic form directly in front of me. Then I took a slow step forward.

She did not move and, suddenly, I felt sheathed in a sense of contentment. Despite standing just a pace from this previously foul-tempered wild animal who, until now, would have liked nothing better than to kill me, I had never felt safer.

I noticed for the first time her wiry eyelashes, the thousands of wrinkles criss-crossing her skin and her broken tusk. Her soft eyes pulled me in. Then, almost in slow motion, she gently reached out to me with her trunk. I watched, hypnotised, as if this was the most natural thing in the world.

David's voice echoed in the background, 'What the hell are you doing?' The urgency in his call broke the spell. Suddenly, I realised that if Nana got hold of me it would all be over. I would be yanked through the fence and stomped flat.

I was about to step back, but something made me hold my ground - a strange feeling of mesmeric tranquillity. Once more, Nana reached out with her trunk. She wanted me to come closer and, without thinking, I moved towards the fence.

Time was motionless as Nana's trunk snaked through the fence and reached my body. She gently touched me. I was surprised at the wetness of her trunk's tip and how musky her smell was.

After a few moments I lifted my hand and felt the top of her colossal trunk, briefly touching the bristly hair fibres. Too soon, the moment was over. She slowly withdrew her trunk and looked at me for a few moments before slowly returning to her herd. Later that day, I decided to let the elephants out of the enclosure and into the rest of the wildlife reserve. For the next 12 hours, Nana toured the boundary fence. Then I discovered her and Frankie heaving up a large tree beside the wire.

'No, Nana, no!' I shouted. But as I reached the other side of the fence and stopped in front of her, the trunk splintered onto the fence, collapsing the poles and snapping the electric current. I ran to the fence and snatched at the wires. The herd was almost on top of us.

I pleaded with the agitated animals. I told Nana again and again that this was her home. She looked at me and, for at least ten minutes, we held eye contact as I kept talking.

Suddenly, as if baffled by the fuss, she turned and backtracked into the bush. Weak with relief, I realised that my relationship with the herd had changed - for ever.

Extracted from The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence, published by Sidgwick & Jackson on 6 June at £12.99. (c) 2009, Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence. To order a copy (p&p free), tel: 0845 155 0720.

Article and photos at:

Link to this post 25 Jun 09

Though this book isn't East Africa, it is an extremely heartwarming story and well worth the read.

I tried to purchase it on here in the US, but they wouldn't have it available until November.
Thus I logged on to and was able to purchase it right away.

I am now 3/4 of the way through the book and don't want it to end. I think anyone who is fascinated by elephants will truly enjoy it.

Link to this post 25 Jun 09

Thank you so much Jan!

I searched the net and found his site from which I copy in some more info:

by Roy Watts

Situated a two hour drive north of Durban, Thula Thula is built on a giant lawn and has an ambience spawned by his perfectionism and the French flair of his charming partner Franoise. It is also a gourmet paradise. Roaming around the hills and valleys of this pristine wilderness are impala, kudu, nyala, zebra, giraffe, rhino, warthog, hyenas and the love interest of this tale, Nanna, matriarch to a band of reformed elephant delinquents.

After watching a savage Carte Blanche documentary on the brutal taming of the Tuli elephants. Lawrence made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire some of these unfortunate animals, but they had already been placed in various game reserves. The Elephant Manager and Owners association learned of his need and came to light with a herd of seven jumbos from Mpumalanga, and they were darted, loaded on trucks, sedated and sent on a nine hour road trip.

On arrival at Thula Thula they were corralled into an electrically fenced boma to be acclimatised prior to release. This didnt suit them at all, and by 5am the next day they had flattened the boundary fence with a huge Tamboti tree and started the long walk to the freedom of the North. A frantic search ensued, lead by the attractive blonde Franoise asking all and sundry in her deep French accent whether they had seen a herd of seven elephants go by.

In an area that hadnt seen a jumbo for at least a century, this must have seemed slightly south of surreal, to say the least. A helicopter joined the search, located the animals, and in a skilful piece of flying the pilot managed to herd them back to within 20 metres of Thula Thula. But night was falling and the wily Nanna retreated into thick bush, and under the cover of darkness they managed to reach and break into the Umfolozi Game reserve. Here the truants really let rip. They broke into an anti poaching unit cabin, scattering bedding, clothes, and rations all around the countryside. If that was not enough, in a stunt akin to schoolboys debagging a headmaster, they then charged and traumatised the senior manager of Umfolozi.

At this point KwaZulu Natal Wildlife stepped in with a check into the history of the animals, coming to the conclusion that they were incorrigible, and that permission should never have been given to re-locate them to Thula Thula in the first place. Their immediate inclination was to shoot Nanna and the adults, then return the rest of the herd to the wild. Lawrence Anthony meanwhile was offered R100, 000 for the herd by a Chinese Zoo agent, who then mounted an assault on his initial reluctance by gradually upping the bid to R300, 000.

Jumboed out as he was after their high-jinks, it is a tribute to his resolve that he managed to walk away from this offer to throw himself at the feet of the KZN Wildlife in a plea for a second chance. Reluctantly they relented and under the threat of a death sentence for a repeat performance, they were darted and returned to the Thula Thula Boma, now wisely bereft of Tamboti trees.

Dawn broke, and with it a hung-over and seriously ticked off herd of elephants put on a full display of their restlessness. Mindful of the extermination threat, Lawrence decided that he was going to stay close to them for as long as it took to gain acceptance. For the next two weeks, 24 hours a day, he lived at the boma, constantly patrolling the perimeter talking and singing whilst they stomped around mad as hell, flapping their ears, trumpeting and showing all the signs of great elephantine displeasure.

After a fortnight of chatting and crooning, and close to being classified as a hoarse-whisperer, he decided to take a coffee break up at the house. When he left the air was thick with malice and resentment, but on his return a palpable calm had taken its place. Cautiously he approached the fence, and stood face to face with Nana the matriarch. In a scene that could have been culled from The Taming of the Shrew, she tenderly put her trunk through the electrified wires and started gently touching him. At this point Lawrence decided that it was now or never and he released the herd into the Thula Thula reserve.

On their release, their calm demeanour remained, and Lawrence followed them from a distance of 50100 metres in his doublecab bakkie to get them accustomed to his car. Their first sortie followed the perimeter fence which they tested every few meters by placing their trunks just below the middle strand to sense the electrical field. They soon gave up on this, and settled into a normal routine.

Two weeks later, Lawrence was woken up at 2am to find the herd serenely munching the thatch outside his house. He continued talking to them, and he realised that he was in a relationship with Nana as she proceeded to touch him through the open door. This ritual continued for several nights as he and his roof continued to host them between 2 and 5am each morning. But the biggest surprise of all was to come several weeks later when Nana returned one night to introduce him to two new members of the herd. It turned out that she and her sister Frankie had been pregnant throughout the whole induction saga, and at a time when most elephants would be protective and temperamental, she had chosen to present the babies to him.

The bond between Lawrence, Nana and the herd continued to increase. They got to recognise the sound of his car, and when he stopped anywhere near them, he was quickly surrounded by unbounded enthusiasm. Were not talking Corps de Ballet here, and this fervour has already cost him several dents, and a couple of broken windows. And his popularity is such that he is now able to walk freely amongst them. This all lead to the most amazing development of all, his ability to summons them with a lengthy yell, just as Tarzan did in all those old-time movies.

In a recent visit to Thula Thula I was able to witness this extraordinary phenomenon first hand. We stopped on an open plain when we saw the herd some distance away. Lawrence gave his clarion call and started a mini-stampede. In seconds we were in a grey forest of legs, trunks, flapping ears and missionary zeal. This was truly one of my most memorable experiences. But it must be remembered at all times that these are still wild animals, and visitors to the lodge will see them in much the same way as tourists do on game drives in similar reserves around the country. This is due to the fact that Lawrence has gone to great lengths to keep his unique relationship with the herd separate from mainstream Thula Thula activity.

With peace and tranquillity returned to this beautiful resort, Lawrence Anthony has recently found himself in the spotlight on the global stage. He was presented with The Earth day medal and the Earth Day award in a ceremony at the United Nations, for his heroic exploits in rescuing the Baghdad Zoo in the midst of the Iraqi conflict. A latter day Lawrence of Arabia so to speak. But thats another story..."


Next time when I go to SA/Durban I must visit his place...........

Link to this post 26 Jun 09

Thanks for this report Pippa. The book isn't all about elephants though. He talks about Zulu traditions and problems he went through with them regarding poaching, his property, etc. And, though he always relocated deadly snakes, two were found in his bedroom!! On one occasion one of his staff was bitten by a black mamba necessitating a rushed trip to the hospital. This is the type of book that I wish more people living in the wild would write.

I have just ordered Lawrence Anthony's other book about rescuing the animals from the Bagdad zoo. Hope it is as well written as the Elephant Whisperer.

Link to this post 27 Jun 09

YES Jan, fully agree!

I have already contacted the UK for the book. I am also desperate to read "real" stuff written by people who have something to say and achieved for the nature's sake!

I must smile when I read about the could exchange experiences

By the way - when are you leaving for Kenya?

I am in the planning stage for TAZ and Kenya for Feb 2010. Regrettably I cannot make it to Kenya in Sep as originally planned. Was too much of travel this year.
Despite I would LOVE to go - need a break.

But maybe - you never know...........if there is a cheap ticket coming along or some trouble in the pipeline - I might escape

Have a winderful weekend! And again - thanks for bringing the whisperer up. Next time I am in SA, which will be no later than Aug 2010, I'll visit Thula Thula - based lawerence is there - for sure.
And I MUST visit Paul Hart as well as Chris Mercer. That's going to be a kind of "rescue trip" and who knows - I might be staying there for long(er)

Link to this post 27 Jun 09


I leave here the end of July for three weeks in Kenya, one week in Amboseli and 10 days in Tsavo.

Am leaving here at 4 a.m. tomorrow for another week down in North Carolina visiting my son again where it is hot and humid!!

You do a lot more traveling and flying than I do. Do you find your feet and ankles swell terribly after
long flights? If so, do you have any remedies? I always wear loose shoes or sandals and try to walk around Schiphol between flights. Despite this, by the time I arrive in Nairobi my feet are terrible and it takes a few days to go back to normal. ? any suggestions?

You are here Bush-Talk Forum General Information Books East Africa The Elephant Whisperer: How Re-Homing a Violent Herd . . .