Friday Inspiration: The Elephant Whisperer

The African bush is never still. Amidst the rustle of leaves and whisper of grass, the grunts and roars and deep cries of predator and prey, herds of elephants roam the landscape within carefully demarcated geographical areas. They congregate at waterholes and snack on a vast menu of delicacies: seeds, roots, fruit, flowers, leaves, branches, bark, grass and thorns. The average elephant eats up to 300 pounds of food and drinks up to 50 gallons of water a day. The largest animal on land, a fully-grown African elephant weighs as much as five tons or more. They are fast walkers and can cover up to 120 miles in one day, adding a whole new dimension to the needing space notion.

Elephants by Jennifer Skutelsky
Elephants by Jennifer Skutelsky

I have always loved them. Growing up in South Africa, I made frequent trips with my family to the Kruger National Park, a game reserve near the Mozambiquan border, where we spent days following and watching elephants with the kind of awe and affection that never lets up.

I had already left Africa when I learned about the work of conservationist Lawrence Anthony and read his book The Elephant Whisperer. It tells the story of how he saved a herd of rogue elephants from execution, and brought them to live with him among the hills and valleys of the Thula Thula Game Reserve in the heartland of Kwazulu Natal.

In every circumstance, an elephant family follows the lead of the oldest female, the matriarch. In search of better grazing and access to water, this particular matriarch had repeatedly led a family of elephants across reserve perimeters, earning them the reputation of delinquents. Three females, an adolescent bull, three young adults and two calves were continuously pursued and shot at as they escaped from every attempt to confine them. The matriarch worked out how to break through electric fences by twisting the wires around her tusks until they snapped, or endured a shock of 8000 volts in the process of crashing through the barriers. She could unlatch gates with her tusks.

Lawrence Anthony, who bought Thula Thula in 1998, was the herd’s last hope. With the permission and co-operationBullEllie of the amakhosi, local Zulu chieftans, he brought the bewildered pachyderms to ideal elephant country, with expanses of savannah, nutrient-rich grasses, trees and plenty of access to water.

The story of these elephants’ rehabilitation and the connections Anthony forged with them over time as he convinced rangers from neighboring reserves to give them a chance is one of the most inspirational I’ve read. I often revisit passages in the book when I need to remember what a vast and miraculous world we inhabit. The loyalty and intelligence of these beautiful animals continues to resonate in me with the stirring familiarity of a distant anthem, and whenever I think of Africa, I inevitably long for elephants. And marvel at how much we can learn from them.

Source: Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence, THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER, Sidgwick & Jackson, 2009.

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