Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Elephants Never Forget

Photo from the Anthony family

On the afternoon of March 7, 2012 a heavy procession made a slow and deliberate 12 hour journey to the home of beloved conservationist and author, Lawrence Anthony in Johannesburg, South Africa who had just passed away. Just.

When they arrived they did not eat nor drink. They encircled his home and stayed for two days mourning the passing of their friend and savior.  They were two herds of wild elephants. Matriarch, bulls and babies. They had come to pay their respects to the man that had saved their lives. Two immediate questions came to the surface: first, how did they know he had just passed? And second, they had not been to his home for at least 18 months, how could they remember?

Lawrence Anthony is well known for his writings and work as a conservationist, he was affectionately known as the Elephant Whisperer. He saved the elephants from the Baghdad zoo during the Iraqi crisis. He saved 'troublesome' elephants from reserves in South Africa who were destined to be shot - elephants who hated humans after being abused and seeing their family members poached.

The relationship with these elephants wasn't always a loving one, Anthony writes in The Elephant Whisperer how on their first night at his reserve he pleads with the matriarch of the herd, Nana, not to try and escape as they will be shot 'out there'. But Nana, a known escape artist fell a tree onto the electrical wire and together with another elephant crushed the generator of the electrical fence, freeing her and her herd. A chase ensued with Lawrence and his staff trying to find and save the elephants before the locals who now saw them as fair game, shot them.
Lucky for the elephants, Anthony found them first.

I spent a brief time volunteering with elephants in Africa, in particular one named Kittibon whose name means I have seen. She had also witnessed her herd being poached, but had been rescued and was now on this small reserve. Every morning Kittibon would, through the electrical fence, whip my face with a stick, throw food at my face - or after I had gotten smart and put a bandana over my face to outsmart the elephant, she doused me with a powerful trunkful of water. Yep, the ellie won. But over time, I developed a deep connection with her, she was one of my greatest teachers. I loved that elephant and when she passed away a few years later from a prolapsed uterus after giving birth I truly mourned her passing.

Lawrence Anthony also talks about this connection with the matriarch elephant, Nana during a near confrontation in his magnificent book, The Elephant Whisperer:

“She took another step forward. I could see her tense up again, preparing to snap the electric wire and be out, the rest of the herd smashing after her in a flash.
“I was in their path, and would only have seconds to scramble out of their way and climb the nearest tree. I wondered if I would be fast enough to avoid being trampled. Possibly not.
“Then something happened between Nana and me, some tiny spark of recognition, flaring for the briefest of moments. Then it was gone. Nana turned and melted into the bush. The rest of the herd followed. I couldn’t explain what had happened between us, but it gave me the
first glimmer of hope since the elephants had first thundered into my life.”

So how did the elephants know? I believe they knew from the deep connection we all have. The deep connection that if we are willing to give up resentment, fear, darkness and all the other trivial stuff that muddles our vision, allows the divine that is in every living thing to flow so miracles are not only possible but plausible.

“We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” - Neil deGrasse Tyson

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