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Mourning Elephants

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Perhaps the truth of their mysterious funeral procession is very simple.

Someone recently emailed me a story about how two herds of wild elephants in a South African game preserve had formed a funeral procession in honor of the conservationist who had rescued them. It was so touching that it made me wonder. I did some research and found that it was all true.

Lawrence Anthony, author of the best-selling The Elephant Whisperer, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 61 on March 2. The elephants in question, which were living in two separate areas of the Thula Thula Game Reserve in Zululand, South Africa, somehow knew that he had passed. Setting out in single file, each herd walked for twelve hours to reach the home where none had been for over a year, and they stayed there for two days.

Anthony relates the story of their rescue in his book, and I have read only a summary. It began when he was contacted about a herd of violent rogue elephants led by an “escape artist” matriarch that had repeatedly broken out of reserves and was at risk of being shot. When Anthony agreed to accept them, they were transported to the Thula Thula game reserve by trailer and sedated before they were released into an enclosure secured by an electric fence.

Anthony and the dangerous matriarch, whose name would become Nana, immediately had a confrontation. “They’ll kill you all if you break out,” he told her. “This is your home now. You have no need to run anymore.” Nana backed off, but sometime during the night the herd destroyed the generator that powered the fence, “trampling it like a tin can” and headed north.

A rescue party set off in pursuit the next morning and had to outrun locals and wildlife authorities armed with large caliber rifles. When the herd was corralled, Anthony and Nana squared off again. Suddenly Anthony realized what he needed to do. “I would live with the herd,” he wrote in his book. “To save their lives, I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them. But most importantly, be with them day and night. We all had to get to know each other.”

In such close quarters with creatures who hated humans, Anthony was risking his own life, but the technique worked. His reputation as an “elephant whisperer” spread, and he acquired other troubled specimens over time. In fact, he rescued animals all over the world, including those in the Baghdad Zoo when the US invaded the city. He also mobilized forces to address the rhino-poaching crisis. Another book, The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World’s Greatest Creatures has just been published.

Elephants are among the most intelligent of wild creatures. Their trunks are enormously sensitive, and it is said that they headed for high ground long before the tsunami struck in Indonesia back in 2004. They are known to grieve for their own kind, and they form powerful bonds with the “mahouts” who work with them. Perhaps the truth of their mysterious funeral procession is very simple. The heart of a good man who loved them quit beating, and they knew.

One Response to “Mourning Elephants”

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