The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild
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.
The adventure has been both physical and spiritual. Physical in the sense that it was action from the word go, as you will see in the following pages; spiritual because these giants of the planet took me deep into their world.
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 was they who whispered to me and taught me how to listen.
How this happened was purely at a personal level. I am no scientist, I am a conservationist. So when I describe how the elephants reacted to me, or I to them, it is purely the truth of my own experiences. There are no laboratory tests here, but through trial and error, I found out what worked best for me and my herd in our odyssey together.
Not only am I a conservationist, I am an extremely lucky one for I own a game reserve called Thula Thula. It consists of 5,000 acres of pristine bush in the heart of Zululand, South Africa, where elephants once roamed freely. No longer. Many rural Zulus have never seen an elephant. My elephants were the first wild ones to be reintroduced into our area for more than a century.
Thula Thula is a natural home to much of the indigenous wildlife of Zululand, including the majestic white rhino, Cape buffalo, leopard, hyena, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, crocodile, and many species of antelope, as well as lesserknown predators such as the lynx and serval. We have seen pythons as long as a truck and we have possibly the biggest breeding population of white-backed vultures in the province.
And, of course, we have elephants.
The elephants came to us out of the blue, as you will read. Today, I cannot visualize a life without them. I don’t want a life without them. To understand how they taught me so much, you have to understand that communication in the animal kingdom is as natural as a breeze. That in the beginning it was only self-imposed human limitations that impeded my understanding.
In our noisy cities we tend to forget the things our ancestors knew on a gut level: that the wilderness is alive, that its whispers are there for all to hear – and to respond to.
We also have to understand that there are things we cannot understand. Elephants possess qualities and abilities well beyond the means of science to decipher. Elephants cannot repair a computer, but they do have communication, physical and metaphysical, that would make Bill Gates’s mouth drop open. In some very important ways they are ahead of us.
Some unexplained occurrences are quite evident throughout the plant and animal kingdom and there is nothing like looking at what is actually going on around you, to turn a lot of what you always thought to be true on its head.
For instance, any game ranger will tell you that if you decide to dart rhino for relocation to other reserves, the day you go out to do so there will not be a rhino around for love or money. Yet the day before, you saw them all over the place. Somehow they knew you were after them and they simply vanished. The next week when you only want to dart buffalo, the rhino you couldn’t find will be standing by watching you.
Many years ago I watched a hunter stalking his prey. He had a permit to target only an impala ram from a bachelor herd. Yet the only males he encountered that day were those with breeding herds of females. And even more incredibly, these non-shootable studs stood nonchalantly within range, eyeing him without a care in the world, while in the background bachelor herds were running for their lives.
How is this so? None of us know. The more prosaic rangers among us just say it’s Murphy Law – that whatever can go wrong, will. When you want to shoot or dart an animal they are never around. Others, like me, are not so sure. Maybe it’s a bit more mystical. Maybe the message is in the wind.
This less conventional view is supported by a wise old Zulu tracker I know well. A vastly experienced man of the bush, he told me that whenever monkeys near his village got too brazen at stealing food, or threatening or biting children, they would decide to shoot one to scare the troop off.
‘But those monkeys are so clever,’ he said, tapping his temple. ‘The moment we decide to fetch the gun they disappear. We have learned not even to say the name “monkey” or “gun” out loud among ourselves because then they will not come out of the forest. When there is danger they can hear without ears.’
Indeed. But amazingly this transcends even to plant life. Our guest lodge on Thula Thula is about two miles from our home in a grove of indigenous acacias and hardwoods that have been there for centuries. Here in this ancient woodland, the acacia tree not only understands it’s under attack when browsed by antelope or giraffe, it quickly injects tannin into its leaves making them taste bitter. The tree then releases a scent, a pheromone, into the air to warn other acacias in the area of the potential danger. These neighbouring trees receive the warning and immediately start producing tannin themselves in anticipation of an attack.
Now a tree has no brain or central nervous system. So what is making these complex decisions? Or more pertinently – why? Why would a seemingly insentient tree care enough about its neighbour’s safety to go to all that trouble to protect it? Without a brain how does it even know it has family or neighbours to protect?
Under the microscope, living organisms are just a soup of chemicals and minerals. But what about what the microscope doesn’t see? That life force, the vital ingredient of existence – from an acacia to an elephant – can it be quantified?
My herd showed me that it can. That understanding and generosity of spirit is alive and well in the pachyderm kingdom; that elephants are emotional, caring and extremely intelligent; and that they value good relations with humans.
This is their story. They taught me that all life forms are important to each other in our common quest for happiness and survival. That there is more to life than just yourself, your own family, or your own kind.
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