I was pretty unhappy about starting Lawrence Anthony’s The Elephant Whisperer (cowritten, as with his other two books, by Graham Spence), not because I didn’t think it was going to be good, but because I knew it was. I knew too that it would mean I quickly smashed my way through reading it and would then be all out of Anthony books.
The Elephant Whisperer is Anthony’s third non-fiction work about his animal rescue exploits, although I don’t think it was written third and I certainly don’t think it’ll be his last. He’s a South African Steve Irwin, but with a little more (forgive me for saying this—because I’m not dissing Irwin, honest) intellect and storytelling smarts.
This book outlines Anthony’s life-changing decision to take on a wild, aggressive, troublesome herd of elephants known for jailbreaking any and all enclosures trying to contain them. With no amount of electrified fence voltage stopping the giant creatures, the authorities are anxious to shoot them dead. Anthony can’t stomach that ‘resolution’ and, despite having no experience with elephants, agrees to re-home them on his reserve, Thula Thula.
Of course, the elephants immediately bust out of Anthony’s holding pen too, making a beeline for their home with villages and humans in their paths. What follows is an intensely anxious search to find and recapture them before awfulness, which Anthony himself dubs ‘conservation’s Chernobyl’, unfolds.
The book’s title gives the impression that Anthony is something of an elephant expert, but he himself states on page one that this isn’t the case. He instead writes of how unexpected and profoundly accepting the elephants changed his life—for the better:
In 1999, I was asked to accept a herd of troubled wild elephants on my game reserve. I had no inkling of the escapades and adventures I was about to embark upon. I had no idea how challenging it would be or how much my life would be enriched […] Make no mistake, the title of this book is not about me for I make no claim to any special abilities. It is about the elephants—it is they who whispered to me and taught me how to listen.
Some of his stories are uncanny, such as how news of the removal of guards who’d actually be secretly poaching animals seemed to spread through the animal world and previously unseen animals emerged. Or how the elephants knew when Anthony was away and went into deep bush, emerging only to greet him on his return.
Some of them are how-about-that clever and fun. One of my favourite is about when Anthony dropped his new Nokia on the ground in his haste to get out of the elephants’ way. It started to ring. After investigating it thoroughly with her trunk and both unsure of what it was and why it wouldn’t stop squeaking, the herd’s enforcer, Frankie, definitively stomped on (and silenced) the phone. Incredibly, Anthony found that the phone still worked (once the elephants lost interest and shuffled off and he ventured out to prise it from the ground):
I later phoned Nokia and told them about the incident, congratulating them on the ruggedness of the phone. After a long silence the manager thanked me and hung up. I reckon even they didn’t believe their products could withstand being stomped on by a wild elephant.
Then there’s the one-liner about how one ranger leaves because he’s fallen in love with a guest. ‘I know guests sometimes steal a towel or soap,’ Francoise, Anthony’s partner says, ‘but this one stole our ranger.’
And for the first time she was trumpeting for all her worth. But instead of a clear, clean call she was honking like a strangled goose. David and I looked at each other. Now we knew why she had been silent. The poor creature had destroyed her vocal cords, screaming herself hoarse for help, calling for her mother and aunts, lost and pitifully alone in the wilderness while lions circled.
The Last Rhinos touches on some of the same themes as The Elephant Whisperer, with some sections of the book recognisable in each, but even when there’s overlap, the stories take on new relevance and significance in the latter. Truthfully, though, I’d read and re-read anything Anthony wrote. His passion, his humour, his compassion, and his wise, pragmatic outlook on life make his books un-put-down-able. Let me know when his fourth book is out, ok?