Clearly, elephants are front of mind for a large number of Overstrand residents at the moment. The Onrus Dutch Reformed Church Hall was bursting at the seams last Thursday evening (in fact people were turned away at the door when even standing room was no longer available), when Françoise Malby Anthony presented the remarkable story of the Thula Thula Game Reserve in Zululand which she and her late husband, Lawrence Anthony started 20 years ago.
Through his bestselling books, Babylon’s Ark, The Elephant Whisperer and The Last Rhinos, many readers will be familiar with the tale of the conservationist’s commitment to wildlife protection and especially the very personal relationship he established with the seven rescue elephants which came to live at Thula Thula in 1999. The story of how they walked to the Lodge in procession to pay their respects after Lawrence died suddenly in Johannesburg in March 2012 and how they return every year on the anniversary of his death has been re-told many times.
In her recently-published book, An Elephant in my Kitchen, subtitled ‘What the herd taught me about love, courage and survival’, Françoise picks up the tale of Thula Thula since Lawrence’s passing. “It didn’t ever occur to me to return to France, my homeland,” she says. “Instead I came face to face with the depth of my attachment to this country and particularly, of course, to Thula Thula. Lawrence was an idealist, a visionary, and I was determined to fulfil his dream for this place.”
She quickly realised, however, that she had three immediate challenges to overcome: She knew absolutely nothing about conservation – that was Lawrence’s preserve, while she took care of the hospitality side of the project – she was a foreigner and a woman. The book describes her successes and failures of the past seven years, the disappointments and the heartbreak, as well as the triumphs and the joy. And always the elephants were there.
The title of the book, she explains, derives from a real-life experience when a seven-day-old baby elephant found itself in her kitchen. It had somehow got separated from the herd and had apparently been wandering around on its own for a couple of days. It was dehydrated and starving. Named after the Lodge’s chef, she was called Tom and when she was strong enough after being hand-fed and given lots of TLC she could be returned to her mother. She is now a strong, happy five-year-old.
When the original seven elephants arrived at Thula Thula, they were terrified and uncontrollable, but thanks to the perseverance and love of elephant-whisperer, Lawrence and the special relationship of trust which developed between him and the matriarch, Nana, the herd flourished. There are now 29 of them, led by Nana’s daughter, Frankie. Each one has a name and an ID card, showing its place on the Thula Thula family tree.
Apart from the elephants, there are, of course many other species on the reserve, including rhino. After they had successfully hand-raised two orphaned baby rhino, Thabo and Nthombi, Françoise opened a rhino orphanage on the reserve in 2014. But in February 2017, tragedy struck. One stormy, rain-lashed night, poachers attacked the orphanage and killed two 18-month-old rhino calves for their tiny, tiny horns.
Poaching is Thula Thula’s biggest challenge and against her will, Françoise finally agreed to the de-horning of the rhino, and still more of them keep coming. In fact, just a week ago an 11-year-old mother and her baby arrived. “Their names are Mona and Lisa,” says Françoise, “and we are hoping that Mona will become Thabo’s girlfriend and teach him how to make baby rhinos.”
Unless the rate of poaching is urgently addressed, the experts say that 20 years from now there will no longer be any elephant or rhino left in the wild anywhere in Africa. Her passion is both to protect the animals which have been given refuge at Thula Thula, and to educate young people, South African and foreign, of the need to conserve them as a legacy for the future. “We have become completely obsessed with protecting our animals,” confesses Françoise. “We maintain a mini-army at the reserve, with armed guards following the animals 24/7, as well as cameras strategically placed in the bush and regular air patrols in the skies above.
“We have also established a residential Volunteers Academy, mainly for young people from overseas, who pay to work on the reserve alongside our 60 permanent staff members and then become ambassadors for conservation in their own countries.” The five local tribal chiefs, each also select a young person from their communities to participate in this programme, free of charge.
“The most important thing I have learnt during these seven roller-coaster years,” concludes Françoise, “is that no matter how tough the going gets, the secret is never to give up – believe in the impossible and never give up.”