Lawrence Anthony: The Elephant Whisperer

Updated on June 19, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony worked to save endangered wild animals. He became well known for his ability to communicate with traumatized elephants and to rehabilitate them. Known as The Elephant Whisperer he bought and ran the 5,000-acre Thula Thula Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.


The First Elephants

Anthony had worked in insurance and property development but his soul was always in the bush where he had spent many years as a child.

In the mid-1990s he left the business world and bought a private game reserve in KwaZulu Natal province. He called it Thula Thula, meaning peace and tranquility in the Zulu language. The reserve is about 200 km north of Durban and once was the place where King Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation, hunted.

In 1999, he was contacted by conservationists and asked if he would give a home to a herd of seven troublesome “rogue” elephants. He hadn’t planned on having elephants at Thula Thula but knew the animals would be shot if a secure sanctuary could not be found for them.

He took them in and started to try to calm them down. They were angry and frightened, two things you don’t want in a 6,000 kg animal with tusks and big feet. He focused his attention on the female leader of the herd, an elephant he called Nana.

In 2009, he told Joanna Moorhead of The Sydney Morning Herald how he handled that challenge: “I’d go down to the fence and I’d plead with Nana not to break it down. I knew she didn’t understand English, but I hoped she’d understand by the tone of my voice and my body language what I was saying. And one morning, instead of trying to break the fence down, she just stood there. Then she put her trunk through the fence towards me. I knew she wanted to touch me. That was a turning point.”

Soon, the herd of now-placid elephants was released into the reserve and Lawrence Anthony got his forever nickname.

He did all this without any formal training in zoology, biology, or any other discipline in looking after wild animals.

Baghdad Zoo Rescue

In 2003, George W. Bush’s ill-conceived attack on Iraq brought another mission for Lawrence Anthony. As he watched television coverage of shock-and-awe missiles raining down on Baghdad he wondered about how the animals in the city’s zoo were coping. Not well, it turned out.

By the time he got to the zoo through a cheeky use of subterfuge only 30 of the original complement of 650 animals were still alive. Hungry people had taken everything that lacked sharp teeth and long claws for food.

One of the few people left at the zoo was Dr. Husham Hussan, the senior veterinarian. Anthony told CBS News “I showed him that I had medicines and drugs and supplies, and he just burst into tears.”

With the help of the U.S. Army, they began rounding up stray hyenas, pelicans, and other animals that had escaped. They also found lions, bears, and cheetahs that had entertained Saddam Hussein’s son Uday in his palace.

The zoo has re-opened and, in 2009, reported it was home to more than a thousand animals.

This tiger cub was one of the animals Lawrence Anthony helped rescue in Iraq.
This tiger cub was one of the animals Lawrence Anthony helped rescue in Iraq. | Source

The Elephants Mourn

Back at Thula Thula, Lawrence Anthony continued his work in protecting indigenous wildlife and integrating local Zulu people into the process.

He could have expected to continue to pursue his passion for preserving wildlife for many years to come, but it was not to be. On March 2, 2012, he suffered a fatal heart attack, and then something extraordinary happened.

The two herds that live in Thula Thula walked for 12 hours to the house where Anthony lived. They stayed around the compound for two days apparently grieving the death of their human friend. Then, they disappeared back into the bush.

No one knows how the elephants knew that Lawrence Anthony had passed away. Amazingly, according to the Thula Thula Reserve in 2014, “The elephants return[ed] for the 3rd consecutive year to mourn Lawrence. Same day. Same time as the two previous years.”


Thula Thula Today

Lawrence’s wife, Francoise Malby Anthony continues the work of conservation and protection of wildlife in the reserve. She and her staff look after elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, leopards, buffaloes, crocodiles, kudus, and many birds.

The rhinos are a particular concern, because they are the targets of poachers. They kill the animals, hack off their horns, and sell them into the Asian medical market where powdered rhino horn is falsely believed to cure impotence in men. In Thula Thula the animals are assigned armed bodyguards who watch over them day and night.

The reserve is also operated as a tourist vacation spot. Visitors can stay overnight in one of two lodges, The Elephant Safari Lodge and The Luxury Tented Camp. Fine dining is also available.

Bonus Factoids

In April 2018, Dame Daphne Sheldrick died at the age of 83. During her life in Kenya she helped save the lives of 230 elephants many of which had been orphaned when their mothers had been killed by poachers or had died in droughts. She developed a special milk formula that was used to rear baby elephants. Her charity’s website noted that she “Lived alongside elephants and learned to read their hearts.” In 2016, she warned that if ivory poaching isn’t curtailed, African forest elephants could become extinct by 2025.

The Great Elephant Census was completed in 2016. It covered 18 African countries and found that the population of elephants had dropped by 144,000 animals between 2007 and 2014.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee is run by Carol Buckley and Scott Blais. They care for about 10 animals that have come from zoos or circuses. By the time they get them they are usually in poor shape, physically and emotionally.

In 1998, the Mfuwe Lodge was built in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Unwittingly, the lodge was constructed across a traditional path that elephants use to get to their favourite food – mangoes. Every year, in late November, the wild elephants walk through the lodge’s lobby to eat the fruit now that it's ripe. They really are the elephants in the room.

Sorry About the Irritating Soundtrack.


  • “What Elephants Can Teach us About Love.” Joanna Moorhead, Sydney Morning Herald, June 18, 2009.
  • Thula Thula Game Reserve
  • “Rescuing the Baghdad Zoo.” Scott Conroy, CBS News, April 29, 2017.
  • “Lawrence Anthony.” The Telegraph, March 8, 2012.
  • “Elephants Say Goodbye to the Whisperer.” IOL News, March 10, 2012.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


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    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      7 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Shyah. Lawrence Anthony's motivation was his love of wildlife and a passion to protect the animals.

    • profile image


      7 months ago

      can i ask what is his motivation to continue to help wild animals

    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      10 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      Hi Jeef. But, rating articles might be a mixed blessing. Not everybody is as kind as you.

    • JEEF profile image

      Dimitrios Emmanouel 

      10 months ago from Brooklyn,New York

      I wish their was a way of rating articles cuz this'd get the best rating. :)

    • JEEF profile image

      Dimitrios Emmanouel 

      10 months ago from Brooklyn,New York

      I loved this it was beautiful and touching(it also helped that my favorite animals were elephants)

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      20 months ago from Houston, Texas

      That is so touching to read that the elephants honored the person who helped to save and rehabilitate them on the exact day of Lawrence Anthony's death by traveling to his home. The fact of them doing it for two more years and on the exact day is amazing. They are definitely intelligent creatures! I applaud everyone who tries to help wildlife survive. I really enjoyed your article.


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