Liz Else, New Scientist
Liz Else: How did you end up being called “the elephant whisperer”?
Elephants communicate with me at least as much as I do with them. It takes a lot of time and you need to be alone with them. After a few days of benign presence they stop what they are doing and take an interest in you. They are generally interested in humans because they are intelligent enough to gauge that their predicament is brought about by humans, who shoot them, dart them, move them – something is always going on involving humans. I think they value good relations with us, but they don’t know what it is that would make us stop abusing them.
Liz Else: Do elephants communicate with us?
Lawrence Anthony: There is scientific work on communication between elephants via infrasound. But communicating with humans is another matter, it hasn’t really been studied. These animals are doing something, or maybe there’s something going on both ways — we somehow get into contact with each other and you certainly know when it is happening.
Liz Else: Surely it wouldn’t be difficult to investigate?
Lawrence Anthony: The trouble is that there isn’t the money. Studying elephant communication is a kind of luxury. Maybe we need an Elephant Foundation with our own Bill Gates?
Liz Else: How did you end up observing this first hand since you are not a scientist?
Lawrence Anthony: I have no formal training but I grew up in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe and came to Zululand, South Africa, when I was young. I’m a bush child of the 1950s. Once you’ve got it in your blood it’s difficult to get it out. Eventually, after selling insurance and working in property development, I sold up and bought Thula Thula, a game reserve in Zululand which was then 5000 acres. There’s a sensibility, a sanity and a naturalness in the bush I missed when I lived in the city, plus I was becoming more and more concerned about the bush.
Liz Else: What was happening that worried you?
Lawrence Anthony: Before I bought Thula, I was working with Zulu tribes to try to rebuild their historical relationship with the bush. They’d been badly affected by apartheid and colonialism. For example, Zulu villagers who had long since shot what little game lived around them had South Africa’s huge Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve on their doorstep — but villagers weren’t allowed in. Part of my work at that time was to take them into the park. The children had never seen a giraffe, which is very shocking. Their cultural and traditional ties to the bush had disappeared. This is the core of what I do — help rebuild the relationships between remote African people and the bush, and the plant and animal kingdoms.
Liz Else: So how did you end up with a rogue herd?
Lawrence Anthony: In 1999, someone called from the Elephant Managers and Owners Association, a private group, and said she had a herd of nine troubled elephants. They were on another game reserve, creating trouble by raiding buildings, charging staff and vehicles. They were going to be shot. The only thing that restrains an elephant is an electric wire, and it’s a maxim in the industry that if an elephant doesn’t respect a wire, you’ll end up shooting it because you can’t control it. Now these ones didn’t respect it any more — they’d got clever.
Liz Else: How do elephants learn to beat electric fences?
Lawrence Anthony: I’ve seen it zillions of times. They’ve got voltage metres in their trunks it seems! They’ll put their trunk under the wire and walk along it checking the power. If the power drops enough, they’ll push through. The elephants do all sorts of things to explore the wire. Sometimes they realise that their tusks don’t conduct electricity very well, so they can twist the wire and break it. They also learn that if they go through quickly the pain is very short.
Liz Else: But you took on this troubled herd?
Lawrence Anthony: Yes. They immediately broke out of the boma, the enclosure we put them in, and then out of the whole game reserve. We tracked them and found they’d broken into an adjacent reserve where they distinguished themselves by charging the senior ranger, nearly killing him.
Liz Else: How did you finally get through to the herd?
Lawrence Anthony: At that point I got really interested and thought there had to be another way around the problem. I managed to get the herd back and decided to get into some sort of contact with the matriarch. I placed myself outside the boma and ignored her when she charged at me and went on talking to her. I kept doing that and got closer and closer. She didn’t break out of the boma and slowly settled into a routine. Then one day, after a few weeks she came up to the fence with her ears down. She seemed relaxed and put her trunk through the fence and touched me. Then I let the herd out into the reserve. There are now 16 of them.
Liz Else: What happened to take you away from Thula?
Lawrence Anthony: In 2003 I heard about the terrible state of Baghdad Zoo — the biggest zoo in the Middle East — after the invasion by US and UK troops. This brought back childhood memories of reading about German zoos during the second world war, when thousands of animals died and many of them were eaten. During the first Gulf war when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, Iraqi soldiers machine-gunned the zoo animals.
I contacted the Americans about their contingency plans for Baghdad Zoo but they didn’t have any — neither did the British. I couldn’t stand the thought of these magnificent animals dying of hunger and thirst in their cages so far from home. I thought, let me just go, maybe I could do something. The Americans wouldn’t let me in formally. I hired a car at Kuwait airport because on TV it looked like the war was over there, with people waving at the US troops. I just drove to Baghdad. I was very naïve.
Liz Else: What did you find when you got to the zoo?
Lawrence Anthony: It was a horror story. Many of the 630 animals were starving or had been shot and killed. Some of the lions had escaped and the Americans shot two of them. A bear also escaped and killed some looters. I got separated from my money. I had no food or water. It was nuts. Then one of the zoo directors came through the war-torn streets to help. I got a bed with the US tank troops. They thought I was bananas. But after just a few weeks I had US and Iraqi soldiers putting down their weapons and picking up a shovel to help. Mullahs in the mosques were calling out to tell everyone to leave me alone. I was there six months. Now the US has put $2.5 million into the zoo and it has been rebuilt.
Liz Else: Sounds like this would make a good film?
Lawrence Anthony: I wrote about my time at the zoo in Babylon’s Ark, and a Hollywood company is going to make a big budget film of the book. They asked me who should play me. I said Brad Pitt because a good likeness is necessary and they didn’t laugh!
Liz Else: How will you spend the money from the film?
Lawrence Anthony: I’d like to spend it on my work with rural communities and on fighting the elephant cull in South Africa. The park authorities want to cull 7000 elephants in the Kruger National Park because they say they are destroying the biodiversity. I disagree. So do the presidents of the Royal Society of South Africa and the South African Society for the Advancement of Science. Top scientists such as John Skinner, former head of mammal research at the University of Pretoria, say there is not a shred of evidence in the primary literature to show elephants adversely affect the biodiversity. The Kruger people say we’re greenies and being emotional and we should look at the damage. We say they’re being emotional and should get some science in there.