Review: Vivien Horler
An Elephant in My Kitchen, by Françoise Malby-Anthony with Katja Willemsen (Sidgwick & Jackson/ Pan Macmillan)
When you’re on a game drive out in the bush you feel as if you’re a thousand kilometres from civilisation. Just you, trees, a wide sky, perhaps an elephant or an impala in view, and space in every direction.
But the horror of poaching means that in many game reserves this is no longer the case. Thula Thula in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the reserve made famous by elephant whisperer Lawrence Anthony, bristles with hi-tech equipment and heavily armed guards.
As his widow, Françoise Malby-Anthony, writes in this sequel to his bestseller The Elephant Whisperer: “Motion detector beams now pick up the slightest movement. There are infrared night-vision cameras throughout the reserve that track activity and feed information into a cloud-based portal. If a poacher disables a camera, an alarm goes off both on-site and in an external control room.”
Despite this her book is a lovely read, with delightful descriptions of rambunctious hippo, rhino and elephant orphans bouncing around, learning how to swim in children’s paddling pools, mock-charging each other, and snuggling up together on mattresses at night.
And there is no doubt that Anthony, her late husband, would be enormously proud of her for carrying on after his sudden death after a heart attack in March 2012. Françoise was an elegant Parisienne of 33 when she met Anthony in London, and not very much later she was living with him at Thula Thula.
Not long after Françoise arrived, they took on a small herd of rogue elephants who were about to be shot, and Lawrence forged a special relationship with them, which he described in his book The Elephant Whisperer. He was a bold man who was driven by his heart, and shortly after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, he got himself to Baghdad in a wildly dangerous but mostly successful bid to save the surviving animals in Baghdad’s zoo. This adventure led to his wonderful first book, Babylon’s Ark.
When Françoise arrived at Thula Thula 30 years ago, she writes, poaching didn’t really exist. “There were no armed guards, no GPS tracking collars on rhinos, no surveillance drones flying over reserves. Being in the bush was simpler, more primitive and pure.”
As we all know, it’s not like that any more. In 2011 I was fortunate enough to spend a weekend at Thula Thula and interview Anthony on the subject of poaching.
Community outreach was key, he said. “Attitudes are changing – people know that animals and reserves bring in money, and people are saying why should foreigners take our rhino? There’s been a huge change in perceptions, including government perceptions.”
But in fact over the past seven years Françoise has been forced to ratchet up security, employing expensive and heavily armed professional guards to patrol their reserve and their reinforced fences. Drones over the reserve are shot down on sight.
The reserve still has two adult rhinos, Thabo and Ntombi whom we saw in 2011, but they wear GPS collars and are trailed through the bush 24/7 by guards. And since Lawrence’s death a poacher got close enough to Thabo to shoot him, although he survived.
Some years ago Françoise was able to achieve a dream and open a rescue centre on Thula Thula for orphaned animals. The centre was some distance from both Françoise’s home and the reserve lodge, and was staffed by a guard, a guard dog, and a group of young volunteers.
One night early last year in the middle of a storm, the centre was attacked by poachers who tied up the volunteers, and shot two baby rhinos for their horns, at that stage no bigger than a child’s fist. One of the babies died instantly, the other, Impi, survived the dreadful hacking of his face.
When he stared in shock at his attacker, the man put out the little animal’s eyes. Later a vet had to euthanase him.
Friends of the reserve were appalled and responded with donations of money which have been used to intensify security. It is sad to read this in the light of Anthony’s remarks back in 2011. Guns and guards could only do so much, he said, and the true way to fight poaching was to restore communities’ traditional and cultural ties with nature, ties that were destroyed by colonialism and apartheid.
But this approach doesn’t seem to have worked. Françoise writes: “What can you do against men with no fear and nothing to lose, armed to the hilt with shotguns and assault rifles? But if we don’t try, more will die.”
An Elephant in my Kitchen is not a sad book, but like most books on wildlife in Africa, it has some very sad moments. Mostly though, you read in awe about the elephants who came to the Lawrence house the weekend after Anthony died and stood there silently in apparent grief, about the antics of the baby animals, about the enthusiasm and dedication of the many people who work at Thula Thula.
Françoise has found new love, but Thula Thula remains her life. She will never give up, she says, but hold on to the dreams she and Anthony shared.
This is a wonderful book.
*A version of this review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on August 5, 2018