Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Elephant Whisperer

Occasionally one finds a book that changes one’s perceptions about how things are. Lawrence Anthony’s  “The Elephant Whisperer” is such a book. It’s actually not that easy to describe what the book is about. At one level Lawrence gives us an inside view on managing a private game reserve in South Africa – a challenging occupation involving everything from bank managers to dangerous poachers, with uncooperative wild animals, crocodiles and politics in between. At another level the book is about situations that go beyond day-to-day anecdotes and display a philosophy of conservation, and an appreciation that nature is not predictable or even always amenable to normal understanding. Then there are the elephants. And this is what Lawrence says in his prologue: “It is about the elephants - it is they who whispered to me and taught me how to listen”. This is a book about Lawrence Anthony and elephants who adopted him as their friend and let him into the periphery of their world.

In 1999 Lawrence had the chance to add a small herd of elephants to his game reserve in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. He wasn’t ready for that development. It wasn’t even his idea. But the elephants were causing problems in their current location and if he didn’t take them they would be destroyed. So he accepted them, and they arrived traumatised and angry with two of the herd having been shot just before their capture. Almost immediately they escaped and he had to fight to keep them alive and then to get them back onto his reserve. Then he had to decide how to handle his new charges. He decided to go against conventional wisdom - which was to leave them isolated until they settled which it seemed they had no intention of doing – and instead spent all his time with them. Outside the “boma” in which they were held, but visible and obvious. And at last there was a change - an acceptance of him by the matriarch Nana – and the elephants could be released to move freely on the reserve. They made it their home.

You can watch Lawrence with the elephants at

Lawrence points out that his relationship was a personal one; he makes no general claims, nor did he allow others to compromise the intrinsic wild nature of the herd by joining his circle of friends. But his insights and discoveries must challenge the way we see these magnificent creatures. That they communicate using low frequency stomach rumbles is known, but Lawrence noticed that it could be used over quite large distances. He believes he became attuned to it so that he could tell if the elephants were nearby. The sounds are inaudible to us, but he describes it as the bush “feeling empty” when the elephants were not around. When they were, it felt different. Unless, of course, they didn’t want you to know they were there.

There is a still more thought-provoking story in the book. Lawrence travels quite often – trips to cities in South Africa and the like. As their relationship developed, the elephant herd took to coming down to the house to greet him on his return. Only thing is, they came down before he arrived. Perhaps they could sense approaching vehicles from some distance? Even how Lawrence drives? It seems unlikely. How about the time they were heading to the house, but turned back and melted away? It turned out that Lawrence had missed his flight back from Cape Town that day...

The book is full of insights, anecdotes, and touches of philosophy. Anyone with an interest in the wild parts and wild life of Southern Africa will find it fascinating. As a bonus it is well written and laced with a charming self-depreciating humor.  But the story of Nana and her herd goes further. This is not a treatise about elephant behaviour. It is about the nature of the friendship of equals across species.

Michael - Thursday

The pictures and the video of Lawrence Anthony with the elephants are from his website

The Elephant Whisperer is by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence and was published by Sedgewick & Jackson in 2009.


  1. I am going to forward this to my niece. Her daughters are 8, 6, and 3; watching the video can be a reward for good behavior.

    It seems that animals can no longer be referred to as "dumb". There is intelligence and there is language.

    Our dogs always tell me when my husband or one of the children are coming home even before the car starts up the street. When my kids were young and in school we adopted two dogs in July. My oldest was in high school and involved in after school activities.

    About a week after school started, the oldest didn't come home with the other two. When we came into the house, the female dog went to the two who were there, putting her snout on the leg of one and then the other, then she would come to me and bark. She kept this up and I realized she was counting them and telling me that I had lost one of my babies.

    I think I have mentioned before that we saw a film about elephants at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The baby of one of the elephants had died and the other females surrounded her, rubbing her with their trunks, comforting her. It was extraordinary to see.

    I just placed a hold on the book at the library. I'll see how much of it she can read to the girls; it will be a nice present for everyone.


  2. Hi Beth
    I think they will really find it interesting. There are some twists to it as well, and not everything ends happily. But it's really good!