Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

Q&A with Lawrence Anthony, author of The Elephant Whisperer

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Lawrence Anthony is a conservationist and author based in South Africa. He has written two critically and publicly acclaimed bestselling books entitled "Babylon's Ark", about his experiences trying to save zoo animals in Iraq, and "The Elephant Whisperer", the story of his singular relationship with a herd of wild elephants. He founded the conservation and environmental organization, the Earth Organization, and owns a game reserve in South Africa named Thula Thula, which in Zulu means peace and tranquility. He is currently working on a third book, tentatively called "Blood Horn", about his efforts to save rhinos in the Congo.

Why do you feel such a strong connection with elephants as opposed to other creatures?
Well, I have a strong connection with a lot of creatures. But elephants are particularly intelligent. Perhaps the right word is aware... All one has to do is expose one's self to that. I do a lot of talking, and I go out of my way to explain [it] to people. A lot of people sort of say, "Well, he's got a psychic connection" or something like that and that's not true. It's something anybody can do. You have to have elephants, of course. The elephants are aware, they're intelligent, they're emotional. You spend time with them and... with just a little intelligence and awareness, any human being can do it. So I try and dispel the myth that this is something special. 'Cause it's not.

When did you decide to dedicate your life to conservation?
I grew up in the African bush in the 50s, 1950s and 60s, in countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe and Malawi. So I grew up with it... and it never left me. I got into business for a while and then went back to the bush...

You spent time in Iraq...
It was in Baghdad during the Coalition Invasion in 2003.

And you wrote a book about your experiences there. Do you mind telling us a little bit about that?
Sure, the book is called Babylon's Ark, and it actually did very well in America and has received a number of awards. In fact, just as an aside, I thought [Babylon's Ark] was the important book. The second book, The Elephant Whisperer I wrote for fun...

...What happened was, when I was a child back in Germany during the Second World War and the bombing of the German cities, tens of thousands of sea animals died. When Iraq invaded Kuwait and started Desert Storm, the first Iraq War, all the animals in the Kuwait Zoo died. The same thing happened in Kosovo, the same thing happened in Afghanistan: the animals died in the zoos. And when the Coalition's troops were massing to launch the attack on Baghdad, on Iraq, I phoned the Pentagon and I said, do you have contingency plans? The Baghdad Zoo is the biggest zoo in the Middle East. It's a huge zoo. And they... had no contingency plans, no plans for that at all. I then phoned the British government, and they hadn't the plans either. And I couldn't stand the thought of these magnificent African animals, lions... not only African, but tigers from India... these magnificent animals dying of hunger and thirst in their cages at the end. So I just got a bit naïve, I think, and went across myself to deal with it.

How did your experiences there color your perceptions of the relationships between animals and humans and how animals can be caught up in human conflict?
...I can assure you that the animals knew they were being helped when we got there. But I'll tell you what was the amazing thing. I was there for six months, but after being there and seeing the invasion while the war was on, the most amazing thing happened around that zoo. American soldiers who were fighting all day would come back and put down their M-16s and help us in the zoo... I had the Iraqi Republican Guard who were fighting American troops... coming to the zoo as well. The very first place where Iraqis and American soldiers were making friends and getting to know each other because of the zoo... Outside of the zoo, they're shooting the hell out of each other, inside the zoo they were helping each other, and that is the effect of people wanting to be with and help the animals.

So the power of animals to bring people together for a common cause...
Absolutely. No question. I mean, if you think about it, these are two opposing armies, and yet soldiers from both sides were helping at the zoo.

In The Elephant Whisperer, you talk about the Royal Zulu Project, amassing lands to create a larger reserve. Can you elaborate on how the project affects Zulu livelihoods or where the project is now?
The reason the project is important is that because of colonialism and then apartheid, the traditional and cultural relationships between Zulus and nature were destroyed. For instance, the game reserves... were off limits to black people. Blacks couldn't go into game reserves. So generations ago they grew up in the wild with these magnificent animals and then from colonial times through apartheid times they weren't even allowed in the game reserves, so this was lost to them. So the purpose of these projects is to rebuild the lost cultural and traditional relationships with nature, with the bush. And that's what the project of Royal Zulu is. The Royal Zulu is happening, the first areas have been enclosed. We're actually getting Zulu tribes who have lost most of their lands over the years, have been taken or stolen from them, investing their land into conservation, so it's a very significant program.

You've described a little bit about how the political climate has affected the relationships between Zulu peoples and wildlife, but in your experience how has that changed culturally or economically and in what way?
We're digging it out of the gutter because... those relationships were denuded and have to be rebuilt. This is an active thing that has to happen... At the time of the first democratic elections in 1994, there was a poaching incident close by, just after the democratic election. They found the poachers with the guns, with the animals that had been poached, and the magistrate refused to prosecute on the basis that Zulu men must hunt. It was as simple as that. Today, that's not the case anymore. Today, the lower courts, which are now operated by South African blacks, understand the value of nature... their cultural heritage and their natural heritages are now being absorbed by the black culture. There is a tremendous amount of work still to be done, but a lot of progress has been made.

You mentioned poaching, which is obviously an illegal and horrible practice, but as your book illustrated there are some cultural elements, such as shaman practices, that require the use of native species like with the vultures.
Yea, that's a big problem...

Do you think there is a distinction between killing for pure profit and killing for cultural use? How do you tread that line?
There are different types of poachers. The fundamental poacher is the man who will poach for meat... He will use some for his own family, and then he will sell the meat. Then you have poaching for cultural reasons, and that would be for all sorts of things. Snakes for medicines... inyaagas are traditional doctors and then you have a sangoma who would be a spiritual doctor, sort of like a witch doctor. It's not the correct term, analogy, but it's something like that. They would have different purposes for poaching the body parts. Then you have your rhino and elephant poachers, different category altogether. They are poaching to sell ivory and rhino horn into the Far East. And the rhino horn poaching, there's an epidemic of that at the moment in South Africa. We lose a rhino a day in the country at the moment. The reason for the rhino horn poaching is cultural: it's a traditional medicine in China and Vietnam and these other countries. Cultural and traditional medicines are a big problem for African wildlife.

Is it an issue of human perception that needs to change in order to solve this problem? Or is there a way to protect wildlife but then also appease people's spiritual or medical desires?
It's very difficult to reconcile those things because of the demand. As South Africa does better financially, there are more jobs and people are earning more money. There are many more people who can afford these things who never could before. In China, that's the huge problem. People who could never afford rhino horn before can now afford it. As the world upturns... certainly in the developing countries, it's putting huge pressures on our wildlife.

You're also writing a new book on rhinos. It's going to be called Blood Horn?
I'm not sure if that title will remain but yes, the book is very much about rhinos. It's the story of my attempts to save from extinction a species of rhino that exists north of South Africa in the Congo. It's an interesting story. I don't know if you've ever heard of a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army up in Uganda and the Congo. Go to the computer, type in Invisible Children. There was a movie made about them. They were the group I was working with at the time. It's got quite an interesting twist and turn to the story...

Could you explain a bit more about what you were doing with the Lord's Resistance Army?
The LRA were encamped in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo which at the time was the last refuge of the northern white rhino, a species on the brink of extinction with only fifteen left in the wild. Essentially, I went and found them in the jungle to try and persuade them not kill the game guards or the last few rhino. I ended up living with leaders in their secret jungle camps. My discussions and attempts to persuade the LRA to save the rhino expanded into child soldiers, peace talks and other matters, which is the subject of my next book, due for release early next year.

Check out a review of Anthony's book The Elephant Whisperer here

Photos are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. Photos are used with the permission of Lawrence Anthony.

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