Larger than life: Graham Spence, co-author of The Elephant Whisperer, reflects on the achievements of charismatic conservationist Lawrence Anthony

When Lawrence Anthony decided to save the lives of seven ‘troublesome’ elephants by giving them a home on his South African reserve, he wasn’t sure what would follow. But he knew it would be a great adventure.

Anthony’s exploits with the elephants on ‘Thula Thula’ have been immortalised in the page-turning bestseller, The Elephant Whisperer. The book weaves together tales of his transcendent interactions with wildlife, brushes with death and hard-won success in rehabilitating the traumatised herd, all set against the colourful backdrop of rural Zululand.

But Anthony’s story didn’t end there. He went on to rescue animals at the war-torn Baghdad Zoo, bargain for the fate of northern white rhinos with leaders of the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army and founded the Earth Organization, among other achievements. Many of these exploits are recorded in two other books: Babylon’s Ark (actually the first to be published) and The Last Rhino.

Although Anthony died in 2012, his legacy on Thula Thula lives on. His wife, Francoise Malby Anthony, is expanding the reserve to make more room for the thriving herd and fuel the local economy.

Since its initial publication nearly seven years ago, The Elephant Whisperer has sold over 200,000 copies, inspired a TV commercial and is even being adapted to film. Our conversation with Graham Spence, Anthony’s brother-in-law and co-author of his three books, shines a spotlight on the man whose intrepid personality and conservation feats have inspired so many.

Hi Graham. You’ve said that the book’s title was disliked by some conservationists in Africa as well as by Lawrence himself, initially. Why is that?

Lawrence hated it. He thought it was pretty pretentious, for a start. And then he turned around and he said, but you know what—they’re talking to him as much as he’s talking to them. So the ‘elephant whisperer’ is not just him. It’s also . . . the elephants whispering to him. And that’s how he came to terms with it. As you mentioned, the conservationists in South Africa thought it was really pretentious as well. You know, you don’t whisper to animals. You just have that rapport, or maybe you don’t. But they came around to it. I think they read the little forward where Lawrence does say, ‘I am not the elephant whisperer, they whisper to me,’ and I think that’s what got them around as well.

Lawrence described many experiences of messages passing between himself and the elephants, but he claimed no special abilities. How do you explain his connection with the elephants? Because to most people, it does seem extraordinary.

Yeah, I think he just sort of gave himself completely. The time when he realised that if [the elephants] broke out from Thula Thula again, they would be shot by the conservation people . . . he just went and stayed [in the bush with the elephants] for two weeks; he barely went home. He slept in the back of his Land Rover. And it was, I think, the fact that he was always there and he was just talking. He wasn’t really saying anything particularly coherent . . . They just sensed that here’s a guy who really was for them, really enjoyed being with them and really gave his all. I don’t think it’s anything mysterious, just if you do that to any species I think you get the return.

On the book jacket, The Guardian describes Lawrence as the ‘Indiana Jones of Conservation.’ He’s certainly bold in The Elephant Whisperer, sometimes even risking his life.

Yeah, he was the bravest guy I knew. But the Indiana Jones quote comes mainly from the first book we did together, Babylon’s Ark. Because there, he was the first non-journalist and non-military guy to go in [to Iraq after the 2003 invasion]. And he just blagged his way across. He hired a car in Kuwait without telling them that he was going to Baghdad. They thought he was just going to be just driving around Kuwait City, and he had two Kuwaiti zoo officials with him . . . They took off to another place because the Kuwaiti and the Iraqi had been at war with each other. And so within five minutes after entering Iraq, Lawrence was lying on the floor of a tiny little Toyota with two Arabs he barely knew, being driven on all the side roads . . . and he said, ‘Ah, this is an adventure!’

Where do you think Lawrence’s courage came from?

I think you kind of just have it . . . In the third book, The Last Rhino, he went to the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army [Joseph Kony] and well, he didn’t actually get that far, but he met his number two [Vincent Otti], right in the Ugandan bush. He just kind of got on a plane and went to Sudan, and somehow got an audience with this guy. He actually once said, ‘If I could save this rhino, I’d speak to the devil himself.’ And he almost did. [Kony] probably was the world’s most wanted guy before Al-Qaeda came up. So Lawrence wasn’t scared of putting his life on the line when he believed in it.

Lawrence was gifted at communicating with humans as well as elephants, even in tense situations, as you’ve just described. In The Elephant Whisperer, he diffuses several conflicts with neighbouring landowners and Zulu communities. What helped him connect with people?

He had a very—for want of a better word—Zulu trait of making small conversation until big things came up. He would meet an induna [Zulu leader] and they would chat about the weather for twenty minutes and I’d be sitting there saying, ‘Come on, let’s get on with it.’ He was really interested in everything that was happening around him and that included the Zulu community, who loved him deeply, and he returned that hugely. So yeah, I think it was pretty much he liked the people and they liked him in return.

Photo courtesy of Earth Organisation
Photo courtesy of Thula Thula

It sounds like he was quite humble in spite of his larger-than-life personality. Would you agree?

Yeah, absolutely. I think you can’t really remain interested in people if you suddenly let your ego get in the way. Lawrence laughed a lot. He could really be quite funny. And he just connected. Look, he could be crotchety as hell when he wanted to and he could also lose his temper if he wasn’t getting his way. But generally he was a humble, easygoing guy. Loved life, loved animals, loved the bush and lived by what he believed in.

Out of all of Lawrence’s achievements, what do you think he would most want to be remembered for?

I’m almost sure his elephants. I can say that with almost total conviction. He had no university degree in biology or land conservation, but he just came in there and really did amazing work. He was really bemused by the fame he suddenly got. He didn’t really expect it. But towards the end of his life, he suddenly realised he had a platform where he could speak from. And he did, particularly for Earth Org. Pretty much, his message was: ‘None survive alone.’ Each species that goes is a threat to all of us; we’ve got to look after everything on this planet.

Do you have a favourite story from The Elephant Whisperer?

I quite liked the dog stories, actually . . . When we came to England, we couldn’t bring our dogs with us, so Lawrence took them over and they all lived on Thula Thula. So I knew the dogs well . . . The other thing, the amazing one, is when the elephant flicked that latch off. [The staff] were herding up antelope because there was too many of them and they got them all into a boma [enclosure]. And an elephant came and flicked the latch and freed all the antelope. That, to me, is the single most uplifting incident in the whole book.

Why do you think The Elephant Whisperer continues to be popular with readers almost seven years after it was first published?

I’m not sure . . . we were completely taken by surprise. I think it’s timeless and it touched a chord. Sort of a ‘Hey, there’s another world out there’ chord. Particularly with urban people. People who say, ‘I wish I’d lived like that.’ Now if you said that to Lawrence, he’d say ‘Well, you can. Just kind of do it,’ but it’s not that easy to do if you’ve got a mortgage and a home and three kids in the background and that. I think for a lot of people it was a dream world. The Elephant Whisperer is currently being made into a movie . . . we signed that about a year ago. And Robin Goode, he’s the director/producer and he is really committed to this project. It’s not a Hollywood company but we’re hoping it will go global.

Photo courtesy of Earth Organisation
Photo courtesy of Thula Thula

How are the elephants of Thula Thula doing now?

I speak to Lawrence’s sons quite a bit . . . and they actually had to undergo a bi-annual contraception programme because the herd was getting too big for Thula Thula. Now, Lawrence’s dream was to establish a huge open game reserve called the Royal Zulu from the gates of Thula Thula to the Imfolozi reserve, which is 14 miles [22.5km]. Everything happens quite slowly in Africa. It’s something you’ve just got to accept, and they still haven’t opened as much land as they would have liked to. The fact that the herd is so healthy that they have try to implement this six monthly contraception programme just to keep the numbers down while they wait for this entire new game reserve to come into being, I think, speaks volumes for how happy they are. Because an elephant won’t breed unless it’s actually content. It will just break out and go somewhere else. So yeah, they’re doing really well.

After speaking with Spence, we also received an update from Lawrence’s wife, Francoise Malby Anthony, at Thula Thula. As Spence mentioned, staff have been trying to limit the elephant population using a reversible method of male contraception since September 2012, but the herd, now 29 individuals strong, has been increasing nonetheless. Through the Royal Zulu project, Malby Anthony is striving to add an additional 3500 ha to Thula Thula’s current 4500 ha. She also mentioned that the entire elephant herd has visited her house on Thula Thula on precisely the same date each year since Lawrence’s death in 2012, seemingly to pay their respects.

If you’d like to know more about the elephants, Thula Thula or Lawrence Anthony, visit the reserve’s website, Facebook page or the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation.


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