Love without Language: Elephants pay their respect to Lawrence Anthony after His Death


Lawrence Anthony, known as “The Elephant Whisperer” passed away Thursday, March 8th, of a heart attack.  If you’re not familiar with this amazing person, he was wildlife guru and conservationist.  It seems the story of his life and accomplishments is so long and so great it’s going to be difficult to relay it all here without devoting an entire book to it, so I will focus on the remarkable event of his passing.

To give a little background, Lawrence Anthony was born on September 17 1950 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  He was raised up in a series of small towns in rural Rhodesia, Zambia, Malawi and finally Zululand, South Africa.  The African bush was his backyard and lifelong love.

He became involved in working with Zulu tribes people to help rebuild their historical relationship with the bush, and in the mid-1990s he decided to turn his hobby into a career, buying the 5,000-acre Thula Thula (which means “quiet”) game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.

He founded a conservation group called the Earth Organization and was instrumental in the creation of two new reserves, the Royal Zulu Biosphere in Zululand and the Mayibuye Game Reserve in Kwa Ximba, which provide local people with jobs and income through tourism while helping to secure the future of the region’s wildlife from creeping development.

In 1999, he was asked if he was willing to take control of a rogue herd of elephants.  There were nine of them and they had been labeled unruly and dangerous, having escaped every enclosure that ever tried to contain them.  As a result, they were wreaking havoc across KwaZulu-Natal and were in danger of being shot.  Lawrence knew he was their only hope and agreed to accept them onto the Thula Thula reserve.

“They were a difficult bunch, no question about it,” Anthony recalled. “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.”

Anthony approached this motley crew of elephants as if they were deliquent children, working to persuade them through words and gestures the difference between acceptable behavior and bad behavior and that they could trust him. He focused most of his attention on Nana, the matriarch of the herd.

“I’d go down to the fence and I’d plead with Nana not to break it down,” he said. “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. That was a turning point.”

Soon after they were finally allowed out into the reserve to roam freely.

Anthony and his wife, Françoise, became so close to the elephants that on some occasions they almost had to chase them out of their living room.  When Nana gave birth, she brought her newborn to introduce to them a few days after its birth.  A few years later, after Anthony’s first grandchild was born, he returned the compliment, though he recalled it was some time before his daughter-in-law would speak to him again.

Anthony tells the story of the elephants in “The Elephant Whisperer,” 2009, co-written with Graham Spence.

About a year ago, Anthony had to make a difficult decision.  Tourism at Thula Thula was growing exponentially as was the herd.  He feared for the elephants’ safety so he forced a distance between himself and the herd.  As a result, the herd had not visited his home in over 15 months.

That distance ended Thursday evening.  After Anthony passed from this world, the elephant herd mysteriously arrived at his home as if to pay their respects.  Anthony believed and advocated that the elephants communicated on levels we don’t understand and their synchronistic appearance would suggest they knew he was no more.  They have returned several times since, perhaps to share their grief.

On a personal note, I believe open, honest, loving hearts speak a universal language.  It doesn’t require a tongue or a dialect.  It’s something that’s passed intuitively between living things.  Some are aware of it and some are not.  This is what I feel is a beautiful and touching example.

Anthony Lawrence is also known for his 2003 gutsy rescue of the animals from Saddam Hussein’s zoo in Baghdad.  As with his elephant friends, he earned the trust of people and animals alike in the middle of a war zone and accomplished what would have seemed otherwise impossible.  But that’s another story.

Anthony died before his gala conservation dinner in Durban planned this month to raise international awareness of the rhino-poaching crisis, and to launch his new book, The Last of the Rhinos (The Powerful Story of One Man’s Battle to Save a Species).

Who is going to look out for the animals now?  Dylan, Anthony’s eldest son, says everything at Thula Thula will go on as before.  Sadly, it will just go on without the presence of Lawrence.

If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy “They Know”.