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“How did the elephants we adopted know my husband had suddenly died?”

July 15, 2018

The book ‘An Elephant In My Kitchen‘ sheds amazing new light on the profound relationship between man and beast

 

Other aspects of the elephants’ behaviour were out of character, too. All 21 of them were jostling about at the gate, clearly agitated. Restless, they walked in a jumble to the front of the lodge, stayed there for a few minutes, then paced round to the back again

What were we thinking? Out of the blue, an animal welfare organisation had asked us to adopt a herd of aggressive rogue elephants — and we’d immediately agreed.

At the time, back in 1999, my husband, Lawrence, and I had just sold everything we owned to buy a large expanse of South African savannah, in the hope of one day turning it into a game reserve.

We were just living in a basic hut, and none of the land was yet fenced.

Neither of us knew anything about elephants, so we were hardly suitable foster parents. Indeed, until I met Lawrence, I’d never seen a wild animal, not even in a zoo.

But there was simply no one else crazy enough to take in the emotionally disturbed elephants. Since being attacked by poachers, they’d been causing havoc near Kruger National Park, and their future looked bleak.

Françoise Malby-Anthony and her husband, pictured together, adopted a herd of aggressive rogue elephants back in 1999

Lawrence Anthony, pictured, and his wife were the only ones crazy enough to take them in after they began causing havoc near Kruger National Park

Never one to resist a challenge, Lawrence started frantically appealing for donations to raise funds for an electrified fence. He succeeded just in time: the manager of the land where the elephants were roaming phoned to say that he wouldn’t keep them for another day.

‘If they don’t leave tomorrow, we’ll have to shoot them,’ he said. The next day, he called again. ‘We had some trouble with the matriarch,’ he said without preamble. ‘I shot her. She’s a bloody nightmare and would have broken out of your reserve and flattened someone. I took out the baby, too.’

I was beside myself with anger and despair.

Even I knew that a herd’s matriarch is their teacher, referee, keeper of memories, travel guide and bush stateswoman rolled into one.

‘This is bad, Frankie, really bad,’ Lawrence said to me. ‘How the hell did he think this poor herd would cope after losing their leader? He probably shot the matriarch right in front of them.’

I began to worry even more about what we were taking on.

The herd had already been in a bad way, and now they’d be even more traumatised — but without a leader to calm them. In the middle of that night, in torrential rain, the seven other elephants arrived in three huge articulated trucks. Two breeding adult females, two teenagers, and three little ones under the age of ten.

The manager of the land where the elephants were roaming phoned to say he had killed the matriarch just days before the adoption

They led the elephants into a temporary enclosure, protected by a new electrified fence – but they weren’t there for long

My heart froze at their terrified trumpeting and screeching as we struggled to get them into a temporary enclosure, protected by a new electrified fence.

They weren’t there for long.

By the next day, they’d worked out that pushing a nine-metre tree onto the electric fence would cause the wires to short. And off they went, heading northwards in the direction of their previous home. Hundreds of villages dot the hills and valleys around our game reserve in Zululand, so we knew there was every chance they’d be killed.

You’d think it would be easy to find a herd of elephants, but it isn’t. For ten days, they managed to evade trackers on foot, in 4x4s and helicopters. And when we did at last get them back, we were warned by the authorities that they’d be shot if they escaped again.

By then, it was clear that a new matriarch — whom we called Nana — had taken over, but the elephants were still deeply distressed. Drawing on his instincts, Lawrence did what he could to reassure them. Night after night, he stayed as close to the flimsy wires as he dared, singing to them, talking to them and telling them stories until he was hoarse.

He was utterly determined to breach their terror of man.

One hot afternoon, he came home and said: ‘You won’t believe what happened. Nana put her trunk through the fence and touched my hand.’ My eyes widened in shock. Nana could easily have slung her trunk around his body and yanked him through the wires.

‘Please get out of this alive,’ I begged.

For ten days, they managed to evade trackers on foot, in 4x4s and helicopters. And when we did get them back, we were warned by the authorities that they’d be shot if they escaped again

CONTINUE

From → Interlude

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