A magical book about life in the African bush

Not since Born Free has there been such a magical book about life in the African bush. And it throws tantalizing new light on the profound relationship between man and beast…

What were we thinking? Out of the blue, an animal welfare organization 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.

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 traumatized – 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. 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-meter 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. The next day, Lawrence released the herd into the game reserve. I was terrified he would be trampled to death, but day after day he tracked them and crept as close as he dared. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed by Nana, who started trying to protect him from the rest of the herd. Eventually, they developed a secret way of meeting. Lawrence would park his battered Land Rover half a kilometer away from the elephants and wait until Nana caught his scent in the air. Then she’d quietly separate from the others and amble towards him through the scrub, her trunk held high to show her delight. She would then swoop it all over him, with delicate touches with the tip, as he told her about his life – Daily Mail, Saturday, July 14, 2018 – and Nana would respond with throaty rumbles.

So how did it all start? Even now, I often gaze out into the bush reflecting on how a chance meeting completely changed my life. Back then, I’d been a 33-year-old who worked for a chamber of commerce. In London for a trade show, I was standing in the taxi queue outside the Cumberland Hotel, running out of time to get to an appointment. The hotel porter asked if I’d be happy to share a cab with another guest, but I shook my head. I wasn’t in the mood for a chat with a tourist who’d dressed in white summer trousers and a blue plastic windcheater on a freezing winter’s day. My rudeness didn’t go unpunished because half an hour later, I still hadn’t managed to find a cab. Going back into the hotel to warm up, I bumped into the tourist. Mortified, I offered to show him how to get to where he wanted to go.

The oddly dressed man I met was South African and in London on business. Somehow, I ended up inviting him to join me at a jazz club that evening. And that was that, until one day the man announced that he was coming to visit me. As I was later to find out, flying more than 6,000 miles for a date was typical behavior of Lawrence. He was bold, impulsive, and never let anything stop him. A few months later, I boarded a flight to South Africa; and, a year after our first meeting, I gave up my job and my flat and moved there for good.

Needless to say, my friends thought I was out of my mind, but I knew I just had to be with this wonderful, funny, crazy man. It was that simple. His enthusiasm for life was infectious, convincing me we could do absolutely anything at all if we wanted it enough.

And let’s face it, our decision to give up a comfortable city life in Durban to buy 3,700 acres in KwaZulu-Natal was pretty mad. Lawrence’s plan was to convince tribal elders to add on their own surrounding lands to turn the reserve into a massive conservation area. And that’s exactly what came to pass.

Protecting the animals cost a fortune, of course, but we built an upmarket ‘eco-tourism’ lodge with seven chalets and were soon welcoming paying guests from around the world.

We called the reserve Thula Thula; ‘thula’ is Zulu for ‘quiet’ because it suggested peace and tranquility. Not that it was ever totally quiet: at night, we’d sit on our veranda, listening to the soft grunts, squeals, whistles, and chirrups of countless animals, birds, and insects.

A year after the elephants arrived, we tried to rescue a fourth female. We’d been alerted to her plight by Dr. Marion GaraI, a researcher who has studied elephants for more than 30 years.

This particular one was aged 12. She’d been part of a group of seven orphans, but her owner had gotten fed up with them and dumped them on various reserves. To Marion’s horror, she discovered that the young elephant had been alone for a whole year – which is comparable to abandoning a 12-year-old human child.

What happened next was shameful: before we could do anything, her owner had auctioned her to the highest bidder, an American hunter.

“Apparently the hunter’s in a wheelchair, so I suppose a frightened young elephant without a herd to protect her is the only way he’s going to get his trophy,” said Marion bitterly.

We were devastated. Here was a young elephant who’d lost her family, not once but twice, who’d been shifted from one reserve to another and condemned to a solitary miserable life – and now her beautiful face was going to end up above some American’s fireplace.

Only a miracle, we felt, could save her. And, amazingly, in March 2000, it came through. Her American owner’s application for a new hunting permit was denied. We never found out why, and we didn’t care.

But our problems weren’t over. The regional authorities had heard that our little elephant was ‘trouble’ and refused to grant us the necessary permit for her removal.

At this point, Marion – who’d never met the animal – risked her professional credibility to swear the troubled little elephant would be fine.

But would she? What if our own herd rejected her?

Lawrence was certain they had too much compassion for that.

“They’ve been through what she’s been through,” he said. “They know the horror of having their families shot in front of them.”

Finally, the permit was approved, and the little one arrived at Thula Thula. We put her straight into an enclosure, and Lawrence set up camp outside it.

She hated his presence, charging him every time he approached the wires. Animosity and fear turned her eyes black with rage.

We christened her ET – short for enfant terrible. “She’s had so much trauma packed into that little life of hers,” said Lawrence. “We’re not going to give up on her now.”

ET’s rage was terrifying enough, but then it turned into the deepest despair. The unfamiliar territory, scary new smells, and terrifying humans were too much. She stopped eating, no longer bothered to charge Lawrence, and just walked around and around in listless circles.

ET had given up.

Article published by: Daily Mail (UK)