The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild  by  Lawrence Anthony

Jane TompkinsReviewed by Jane Tompkins

A few nights ago I saw a documentary on TV about a whale who appeared one day in Nootka Sound, British Columbia, and began making friends with the people in the boats there. The presence of the whale—they named him Luna—was so strong, his friendliness so obvious, his good nature and playfulness so charming, that they couldn’t help falling in love with him. And by the end, you can’t help loving him either. Because that was what the documentary was about—love: the love that is possible between human and animal. I mention this because that is also the subject of Lawrence Anthony’s book, The Elephant Whisperer, which he wrote with the help of Graham Spence.
bookAnthony, who has spent a long time in South Africa, has recently bought a game preserve in Zululand. He is asked to take in a herd of seven wild elephants that have been mistreated by their former keepers and as a result are difficult to handle. With some misgivings, Anthony takes them in. From this point forward, it’s one hair-raising episode after another, as the author tries to get the elephants settled into their new home. Even getting the elephants out of the van that delivered them is a nail-biter. What makes the book rare and noteworthy, though, is not so much the tremendous obstacles the author must overcome in order to keep the elephants—and the people on the reserve—safe, as the qualities he exhibits as he goes about his task.

Anthony is psychologically astute when it comes to both animals and people (not including his fiancée); he handles delicate situations with the chiefs of neighboring tribes, and with various members of the herd, with imagination, tact, resourcefulness, and daring. He jumps into his jeep at a moment’s notice, ready to intervene in crises that require him to put his life on the line; he makes life and death decisions with promptness and aplomb. When the matriarch of the tribe threatens to destroy the roof of the guest house—under which the guests are cowering—he manages to dissuade her from finishing the job. He spends time with the lonely bachelor, Mnumzane, exiled from the herd as all adult males are, and learns to count him as a friend. What impressed me most of all was the way he listened to his instincts in dealing with the elephants and followed through on what his instincts told him.

What they told him first was that he had to earn the trust of the matriarch of the herd—elephant herds are always led by a senior female. This he does by camping out in the preserve for several weeks near where the elephants have settled. He simply hangs out near them, mostly minding his own business, so that the elephants can get used to being around a human who never harms or interferes with them. Slowly he approaches their leader, whom he has named Nana, and very gradually she learns that he means her and the other elephants no harm. Eventually a relationship of trust develops between them so that, as in the case of the porch roof, Nana will take directions from him—when she sees fit.

But it’s not just a matter of Nana’s learning about Lawrence Anthony. Lawrence learns as much if not more from her. He learns to pick up the elephants’ feelings from the way they look at him, registering the expression in their eyes; learns how to read their body language, and to catch the drift of their stomach rumblings—a major means of communication among the elephants. After a while he can tell instantly what mood an elephant is in. Sometimes, it takes a combination of experience, knowledge, and logic to figure out why the elephants behave as they do. But sometimes, although Anthony describes the various physical signs that tell him how an elephant is feeling, it seems that the real communication is taking place on a non-physical level. He just knows what is going on. This is even more true of the elephants. Near the end of the book, when the author returns from a six-month absence, the entire herd—now numbering fourteen—is waiting for him at the gate.

Generalizing from my own experience, the effect of these incidents on the reader is powerful. One comes to feel on one’s own pulses the trust and respect that exist between Lawrence and Nana, the bond of friendship between him and Mnumzane, the bachelor male. This feeling of connection has the same quality of pervasiveness and strength that characterized the relationship between the whale, Luna, in the documentary, and the people she befriended on Nootka Sound. This similarity suggests that what Anthony says at the end of his book about the relations between humans and elephants is true of human-animal relations in general: “There are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves.” What I learned is that animals like these, who communicate with one another in ways both subtle and profound, can make themselves available to us, completely and without reserve, at the deepest level possible—that of trust, love, and understanding—ushering us into a world of feeling and knowing that transcends human limitations and touches on the divine.~