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The Elephant Whisperer

April 29, 2012

They were a herd of violent rogue elephants destined to be shot. Lawrence, 59, was asked to save a herd of rogue elephants, he accepted – and found himself fighting a desperate battle for survival. He was their last hope for survival. What happened next was extraordinary.

” … 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.

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, the matriarch, 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.

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. They had to be saved. 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. I was at a loss. 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.

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 crisscrossing 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, hypnotized, 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 realized 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. ‘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 anymore.’

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

(excerpt from his book – The Elephant Whisperer)

The relationship had been established, not with one but all.. a relationship that did not end, even with his death.

Lawrence known to many as the Elephant Whisperer (known for his unique ability to calm traumatized elephants) died on March 7. His family tells of a solemn procession on March 10 that defies human explanation –

Two days after his death they all came to his place – the two herds of the South African wild elephants from nearby forests reached his home. It had been almost a year and a half, since the herd had visited him or come anywhere near his house. However soon after his death, his house was full wild elephants, who hung around his place for about two days before making their way back into the forest. It seems that these elephants had traveled for more than 12 hours through the Zululand bush until they reached the house of this man who had saved their lives.

“A good man died suddenly,” says Rabbi Leila, “and from miles and miles away, two herds of elephants, sensing that they had lost a beloved human friend, moved in a solemn, almost ‘funereal’ procession to make a call on the bereaved family at the deceased man’s home.” How after his death, did the reserve’s elephants — grazing miles away in distant parts of the park — know?

The fact that these elephants somehow realized, and then traveled a great distance to mourn the loss of someone they loved and trusted makes me wonder – how so minutely little do we know of the extraordinary love, understanding, intelligence and wondrous ‘interconnectedness’ that all living beings around us carry!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Pranoy permalink
    May 2, 2012 11:13

    Superb and enlightening.. thank you for sharing this


  2. Maya permalink
    May 2, 2012 18:45

    a brilliant and moving story. something i am going to save with me. thanks 🙂


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