Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Elephant Whisperer...few things about family which elephants can teach us

I read this article in The Hindu.. it was such a great one that i thought i should share this with all others.

I have heard about such close knitnedness but this was great. I wished I could also do something like this. Belong to a family which cares and supports all members. We human don’t have the common sense for this. We have our ego before us, hurting each other. Why cant we talk and understand before coming to a conclusion. Now a days we are so much wired that we don’t have time …..for anything ..


 Lawrence Anthony’s eyes mist over as he remembers the moment he met his ready-made family for the first time. “They were a difficult bunch, no question about it,” he says. “Delinquents every one. But I could see a lot of good in them too. They’d had a tough time and were all scared and yet they were looking after one another, trying to protect one another.”

From the way he talks, you might guess that he was talking about disadvantaged children; in fact, it’s a herd of elephants. And not just any herd of elephants either, but a notorious, wild herd that had wreaked havoc across swathes of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and were now threatened with being shot. “I was their only hope,” says Anthony, 59. “There were seven of them in all, including babies and a teenage son. But the previous owner had had it up to here with them — they’d smashed their way through every fence they’d ever come up against.”

Anthony knew his plan was risky — “angry elephants are very dangerous animals if they don’t like you. You can be hamburger meat in seconds” — but his children had grown up and left home and he and his French wife, Francoise, had space on their game reserve, Thula Thula. When they were approached by an elephant-welfare organisation, Anthony, a respected conservationist who made world headlines in 2003 when he flew into Baghdad to rescue the animals from Saddam Hussein’s zoo (an episode of the South African-born environmentalist’s life that is being made into a Hollywood movie), knew he couldn’t refuse.

Beyond wildest imagination

Today, 10 years on from the moment the herd arrived, he says — in another echo of many adoptive parents — that the difficulties of the job were beyond his wildest imagination.

“It’s been a hundred times harder than I’d thought,” he says. But he could not have foreseen how much a bunch of troublesome tuskers would teach him about family love and loyalty. “The care these elephants shower on one another is astounding,” he says.

From the start, Anthony — tall, bearded, tanned and clad in khaki — considered the elephants part of his family. “We called the matriarch Nana, because that’s what all the children in the Anthony family call my mum,” he says. “The second in command, another feisty mother, we called Frankie after Francoise.”

As with human adoptions, the early days were especially tough. Nana and her troupe weren’t called the most troublesome elephants in Africa for nothing: every morning they would try to break out of the compound where they were living. Every day, Anthony, in a gesture that many parents who have had to deal with difficult kids will recognise, would do his best to persuade them that they shouldn’t behave badly, but that whatever they did he loved them anyway, and that they could trust him. “I’d go down to the fence and I’d plead with Nana not to break it down,” he says. “I knew she didn’t understand English, but I hoped she’d understand by the tone of my voice and my body language what I was saying. And one morning, instead of trying to break the fence down, she just stood there. Then she put her trunk through the fence towards me. I knew she wanted to touch me — elephants are tremendously tactile, they use touch all the time to show concern and love. That was a turning point.”


Elephants are matriarchal. Anthony’s herd consisted of a group of mothers and their pre-adolescent young. Within the group, the matriarch has absolute authority.

“Whatever she says goes. If she wants to turn left, they turn left. If she wants to walk for 100 km, they walk for 100 km. Watching her made me understand what family means — her behaviour taught me that wise leadership, selfless discipline and tough unconditional love is the core of the family unit. I learned how important one’s own flesh and blood actually is when the dice are loaded against you. Nana would do anything for the family she led: she expected to be obeyed, and she was, but she was very, very careful about where she led those she was responsible for.”

Her acceptance of Anthony meant that the other elephants followed suit, which was life-saving for both him and Francoise a few days later when they unwittingly came between Frankie and her babies. She charged — “and let me tell you, an elephant charge is the most magnificent, and also the most terrifying, experience life holds” — and only broke off when she was seconds from obliterating them. “If Nana hadn’t shown Frankie she could trust me and shouldn’t hurt me, we’d certainly have been crushed to death.”

Frankie’s defence of her young was typical: an elephant mother’s devotion to her children is, Anthony believes, unparalleled in the animal kingdom. He tells a heartbreaking story about how another of the herd, Nandi, gave birth to a daughter whose legs were deformed. Despite the danger of lions, and the heat, Nandi remained with her for two days, supported by Nana and Frankie, all three taking turns to shield the baby from the sun. Time after time, they tried to lift her with their trunks so she could stand. “Watching Nandi made me realise how much a real mother cares. She was prepared to stand over her deformed baby for days without food or water, trying right until the end to save her, refusing to surrender until the last breath had been gasped.”


There were many other lessons in family behaviour, too. Frankie, the feisty aunt, showed time and again what loyalty meant. “She’d have laid down her life for them in a blink, no question, and in return, the others gave her their absolute love and respect. And the way Frankie raised her young, Marula and Mabula, showed me first-hand what good parenting can achieve despite adverse circumstances. These beautiful, well-behaved children are what we in human terms would call “good citizens”. They saw how their mother and aunt treated me, and in return accorded me the respect one would give to a distinguished relative.”

Reciprocal exchanges

Today, the Anthonys are so close to their elephants that on occasion they have almost had to chase them out of the sitting room. Anthony’s guiding principle has always been that if he respected them, they would respect him. Exchanges between him and the elephants have often been reciprocal, most movingly when Nana’s son Mvula was born, and she ambled forward out of the bush, days after the birth, to show him off to the man she now regarded as a close kinsman. A few years later, after Anthony’s first grandchild, Ethan, was born, he repaid the gesture. “Mind you,” he says with a laugh, “my daughter-in-law didn’t talk to me for a long time afterwards. There I was, holding her tiny, days-old baby, walking towards a herd of wild elephants. She didn’t imagine I’d go so close — but I knew we were safe. The elephants were so excited — their trunks went straight up and they all edged closer, intensely focused on the little bundle in my arms, smelling the air to get the scent. I was trusting them with my baby, just as they had trusted me with theirs.”

Respect for the elderly

The elephants’ respect for the elderly herd members is something else human beings could learn from, says Anthony. “Old elephants tend to get dementia and are very slow. But the young treat them with the utmost respect and devotion — when an elderly relative can’t scrape the bark off branches to eat any more, his sons and nephews lead him to marshes or swamps where the leaves are softer. When he’s too weak to stand, they guard him to protect him from lions or hyenas.”

This week, Anthony flies home from London, where he has been promoting his new book, to South Africa and Thula Thula. He knows that Nana, Frankie, Nandi and the rest of the gang will be waiting for him at the gate — they always seem to sense when he’ll be back. These days, they are as much there for him as he is for them. Adopting a herd of wild elephants might have been the biggest risk he ever took in his life but, against the odds, it has paid off. The conservationist who welcomed a herd of badly behaved elephants into the heart of his family has had his brave and bold gesture returned in a way he couldn’t have dreamed of: these days, he is as much a part of their family as they are of his. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence is published by Pan Macmillan.)


Anonymous said...

good one abhi...

Abhi said...

so simple but v hv 4got abt it :)