An Elephant In My Kitchen

Following my husband’s death, I found myself in charge of the African nature reserve we created together. I didn’t know where to begin

Françoise Malby-Anthony Published Oct 17, 2020 00:00:00 IST
2020-10-17T00:00:00+05:30
2020-10-16T23:36:46+05:30
An Elephant In My Kitchen Young Tonic and his mother, Induna, lead the herd on a stroll through the Thula Thula reserve. (All photos courtesy Françoise Malby-Anthony)

I grew up a city girl, a Parisian through and through, who could tell the quickest way to Saint-Germain-des-Prés but who knew nothing about animals. Our family never even kept pets.

Living and working in the city, even a beautiful one like Paris, leaves no time to notice nature. It’s métro, boulot, dodo, as they say in France, when life is a relentless treadmill of commute, work, sleep. Yet, even as I pounded the Parisian treadmill, somewhere deep inside of me I always felt that I would end up in a foreign country.

But living in the sticks in Africa? Not that foreign.

And yet, here I was, in the sticks, all by myself.

It was my husband Lawrence Anthony, a South African, who brought out the wanderlust in me. I’d met him in London in 1987, and a year later I gave up my job and my chic Montparnasse apartment and moved to South Africa. I started a fashion business in Durban, but we were drawn to the bush, and eventually we bought a game reserve—a beautiful mix of river, savannah and forest sprawled over 1,500 hectares of the rolling hills of Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal. There was an abundance of Cape buffaloes, hyenas, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest and antelopes, as well as birds, crocodiles and snakes of every kind.

We named our preserve Thula Thula. We added elephants, rhinos and hippos, and soon we were wor-king to save our Noah’s Ark from the predations of poachers and hunters who roamed the countryside for fun and profit. We built seven luxury chalets under the acacia and tambotie trees on the banks of the Nseleni River and opened the Elephant Safari Lodge in June 2000. I employed some locals, taught them about office-work, dealing with guests and cooking French dishes. Lawrence handled everything to do with the reserve—he mended fences, monitored security, improved the dirt roads and cleared the vegetation.

Then in March 2012, at age 61, Lawrence died of a sudden heart attack. And now here I was, alone, burying my husband and I didn’t know where to begin.

thula-thula-2_101620112746.jpgAfter her husband Lawrence died in 2012, Françoise ran Thula Thula on her own

***

Dangerous Days

By then I had been in South Africa for over 20 years. We had expanded Thula Thula to three times its original size. And though a part of me yearned for the busy familiarity of Paris, I knew my life was in South Africa. I loved Africa and embraced its melting pot of traditions and cultures. I soon faced my first baptism by fire. It was only a few days after Lawrence passed away when I received a radio call. Poachers. Our rhino calf Thabo, a strapping three-year-old male, had taken a bullet.

When Lawrence was alive, he handled the emergencies. I had no clue what to do. I was simply shocked that poachers had the gall to breach our fence in broad daylight; they hadn’t even bothered to use silencers. Perhaps they knew Lawrence had recently died, and assumed that our security would have been dropped.

At that point we had 23 guards who were supposed to watch over the animals, sweep for snares and act as first responders, if poachers entered the reserve. A rumour suggested it was an inside job. Perhaps a guard had been bribed? Maybe someone was trying to frighten me into leaving?

The rangers reported that there was a lot of blood, but Thabo’s female companion, Ntombi, wouldn’t let anyone near him. And then the hyenas, smelling blood, began to pester them.

I talked to our vet, who was three hours away by car or 30 minutes and 30,000 rand (about ₹1,36,646) by helicopter. I told him that the rangers had seen Thabo take a few steps. “That’s good news,” he assured me. “If he’s walking and not in obvious pain then the bullet probably didn’t damage any bones. He won’t be comfortable but it doesn’t sound life-threatening. I’ll be there in the morning. Keep him safe until then.”

No one slept a wink that night. The rangers gave Thabo and Ntombi their space, but kept an eye on them all night. Thabo eventually lay down, while Ntombi stayed vigilant and spent most of her time chasing off hyenas. Rhinos have terrible eyesight but a great sense of smell, so Ntombi knew these small but dangerous predators had arrived long before the rangers did.

By daylight, I’d arranged for two ex-military men to reinforce our security. When the vet arrived, he darted Thabo while the rangers kept Ntombi at a safe distance.

“It’s a flesh wound,” the vet announced. “The bullet missed the bone by millimetres.”

I will always be grateful that those poachers were such useless marksmen.

For weeks afterwards Alyson, a veterinary nurse and one of our main caregivers, cleaned the gunshot wound every day. Thabo was healing well. But, he was still traumatized. He lost weight, cried out in the night and became worryingly lethargic.

thula-thula-3_101620112904.jpgVeterinary nurse Alyson played a crucial role in helping Thabo (pictured with his female companion Ntombi) recover from his gunshot wound.

One day Thabo lay down at the edge of the dam on the river, with his face completely submerged. Although rhinos are quite good at holding their breath, one of his guards was so worried that he sat next to him on the bank of the dam, cradling his head in his lap until he was ready to get out.Lawrence was gone. I had a rhino in trouble and security men I couldn’t rely on. And since booking after booking had been cancelled after news broke of Lawrence’s passing, I also had an empty bank account.

The pressure to deliver was enormous, and I struggled against the scepticism of people who didn’t believe in me, who didn’t think I could manage. Most thought I would go back to France. But how could I leave Thula Thula, the dream that Lawrence and I had fought so hard for? I worked with the most wonderful people. They were my family and I couldn’t abandon them. And there was our special herd of animals, many of whom we had raised from babies. They were family too.

I had a lot to learn, but I slowly found my feet. Everyone did everything they could to help Thabo get better, and eventually he recovered from the trauma. I set up meetings with the staff to go over reserve and animal issues and to agree on priorities. I reorganized the security staff. And I launched our own rhino fund—I realized that without money, the animals wouldn’t be safe. Money flowed in, enough to pay for extra guards and buy extra security equipment.

I will never forget those ghastly days after Thabo was shot. But they helped define the purpose of my life without Lawrence, and I understood that the mantle of protecting Thula Thula’s wildlife had become mine, and mine alone.

***

Baby Elephant

One night there was a sharp knock on my door. I wasn’t expecting a visitor.

“Françoise? It’s me,” a woman whispered.

I threw open the door. “Tom? What are you doing here? What’s wrong?”

Tom, a petite, shy young woman, was my chef. She motioned for me to come outside. “There’s a baby ellie here.”

“An elephant?”

“She’s right outside your house. She’s tiny and terrified.”

“It must be ET’s one-week-old daughter,” I said grimly.

Tom explained that she’d heard a noise outside her room. She’d taken her flashlight, opened the door a fraction and shined it across the garden. A tiny elephant stared back at her, eyes bulging in terror.

Stunned, Tom had closed the door and climbed out a back window to call me.

Apparently, the baby elephant had somehow slipped under the perimeter fence. But elephants are fantastic mothers; ET would never leave her baby unattended. The whole thing seemed impossible. And a baby elephant in trouble is a code-red emergency. She faced too many dangers on her own—hyenas, crocodiles, snakes, rhinos, not to mention the river. I shuddered. What does a week-old calf know about the dangers of water?

Tom and I had to get her inside to keep her safe until we could get her back to her mother. We found her cowering behind a mulberry bush at the side of the house. Frightened eyes peered out at us through the leaves.

I walked slowly towards the calf. She watched me, paralyzed, but as soon as I was within touching distance she squealed and bolted behind the house. Tom and I ran after her, but again she hurtled away, trumpeting in panicked shrieks. I was scared she would wriggle under the fence and disappear. If she ran into the reserve we would never find her, and if she got lost she wouldn’t survive.

Other staff heard the commotion and came to help. I scanned the bush around the house. Where on earth was the herd? The calf was making so much noise they must have heard her by now, but there was no sign of them. I began to wonder if they’d abandoned her. If they’d rejected her, they would never take her back.

It was at times like this that I felt so alone. Lawrence would have known what to do. I stood in the middle of the lawn and gazed into the blackness, willing the herd to come back and fetch their little one.

Tom and Alyson managed to corner the calf in the parking area. She stood completely still, head down, ears drooping, her eyes flitting anxiously at any movement or sound. I tried approaching her again, and this time she didn’t resist, allowing us to gently herd her into my home. Once inside, she panicked again, running around my kitchen in frenzied zigzags, trumpeting in fear.

I kept talking to her, telling her she was safe and that we would get her back to her mum. Alyson called the vet, who told us the priority was to get her to drink—soya milk if we had it, otherwise regular cow’s milk.

We had nothing resembling a bottle, so we adapted latex gloves. Alyson used a needle to pierce a tiny hole in the thumb, and we started a feeding line. Tom warmed the milk. I held the glove open. Tom filled it. I tied it closed. Alyson did the feeding.

thula-thula-4_101620113016.jpgFeeding Tom, the baby elephant, turned out to be a messy process.

The elephant drank straight away, gulping down the first glove-bottle and then nudging Alyson’s hand for more. We spilled milk on the floor and all over Alyson, and it completely covered the elephant’s face. But the baby calmed down and began to inspect us with great interest, surfing her inquisitive trunk all over us, sniffing our faces, poking it into our hair.

She finally dozed off. I contacted the rangers who all got out of bed and started searching for the herd. Then I sat next to the baby on the kitchen floor in case she woke and felt frightened.

I inspected every part of her and found nothing wrong. No open wounds, no swellings, no deformities. She was a perfect little elephant.

Long after midnight, my radio crackled. “We found them,” Vusi, my chief ranger, said. “They’re not too far away. We’re on our way back. I’ll bring the truck to your door and we’ll load her up and take her home.”

That was great news. But we still faced a real test. What if her mother ignored her? Or worse, became violent? I’d heard of baby elephants being trampled to death when they’d been rejected by the herd.

We prepared another glove-bottle in case we needed it. And I reassured the baby, “You’ll be with your mommy soon.”

We heard the rattle of the truck on the dirt track. Vusi had arrived.

Alyson fed the calf as Tom and I carried blankets to the truck to soften the ride for her. “How does the herd seem?” I asked.

“Tense and skittish,” I was told. They were clearly stressed, yet hadn’t come to fetch the calf. All signs pointed to rejection.

The men lifted the calf into the truck. Vusi took the wheel and others climbed in the back, as the calf gave a couple of trumpets. It seemed she now thought she was on an adventure! If she survived, she was going to be a remarkable elephant one day.

I waved them off with dread in my heart. Please take her back, ET, I thought, crossing my fingers and blowing a kiss to the sky.

The herd was slowly heading south, so Vusi drove to a clearing that they would traverse. “Expect visual in five,” I heard on the radio.

“Time to offload the calf,” Vusi said. “Go, guys!”

They lowered the calf off the back of the truck. The clatter of breaking trees became louder. The herd was nearby. Then the elephants caught scent of the baby and pounded closer. The calf trumpeted in bewilderment. The team leaped back into the truck.

ET skidded to a standstill, her ears pinned back. The herd flocked behind her, silent. Then ET’s trunk curled over her daughter and pulled her under her belly. The baby stood still, watching the rangers.

“Time to go,” Vusi said in a low voice.

ET trumpeted loudly and pushed her baby into the middle of the herd. A tangle of trunks welcomed her, and then Vusi drove off. So far so good. They hadn’t rejected her. But we couldn’t relax until we had seen her suckle.

In the morning Vusi headed to the dam. The entire herd was there. He manoeuvred as close as he could, binoculars trained on the elephants. And that’s when he saw the calf suckling.

I named the calf Tom in honour of my gentle chef, whose presence of mind in the night saved the little one’s life. We monitored baby Tom for weeks to make sure she didn’t wander off again, but ET had obviously grounded her daredevil daughter. Every time the rangers saw ET, baby Tom was right there at her mother’s side.

thula-thula-5_101620113059.jpgThe elephant herd comes to Françoise’s yard for a visit.

***

“She Attacked Him!”

I wanted to build an orphanage to take care of animals whose mothers were killed by poachers or hunters, or who otherwise met their fate in the bush. We received funding from Four Paws, an animal-welfare charity based in Austria, and by early 2015 we were putting the finishing touches on the facility—building wallow pools, plan-ting grass and decorating the nursery with stencilled paw prints. We were in a strange no-man’s land of waiting for tragedy to happen.

The call came one morning in April. The Zuzuland anti-poaching unit found the carcass of a poached female rhino, but there was no sign of her calf. Hopefully the rangers would find him before the lions did.

We heard nothing for two days.

The clock was ticking for the little chap. At last the orphaned calf was sighted with another female rhino and her infant. It’s unusual for a female to look after a calf that isn’t her own, but if she allowed him to stay with her he had a good chance of surviving. The orphanage was ready, but the top prize for him was not to need it at all.

Then we got an update. The cow was turning aggressive. The little orphan rhino could smell her milk, could see the other calf drinking from his mother, but he wasn’t allowed anywhere near them. The next morning the rangers called us. “The calf’s in danger. We’re going to rescue him.”

“Bring him, we’re ready,” I said. “When will you get here?”

“Don’t know. It’s bloody dangerous. The two calves look alike, and if we get the wrong one, the cow will kill the orphan.”

They tried for two days. But as soon as the rangers approached, all three rhinos scattered and disappeared into the dense bush. Then I got another call. “She attacked him! She threw him in the air. He’s injured and the cow and calf have run off.”

With the mother out of the way, the rangers caught the terrified calf at last. They brought him to us in a pickup truck.

We got him inside. The vet sedated him, then inserted a drip into a vein to hydrate him. There were festering wounds on his groin where the female had gored him, and his skin was covered with infected tick bites. The vet cleaned him up and administered a hefty dose of antibiotics.

We named the young rhino Ithuba, meaning ‘chance’ in Zulu, because he had dodged poachers and predators for a week and now needed luck to give him a second chance. The first night he slept peacefully, due to exhaustion and the sedation. But the second night was hell. His high-pitched squeals of terror pierced every corner of the orphanage. Feeding him was impossible. He was too big and violent for caregivers to go into the room with him, yet he wouldn’t take the bottle they held through the barrier.

The caregivers, including Alyson, the veterinary nurse, and Axel, a young man from France, tried to persuade him to take the bottle. But his fear overcame his hunger, and he cowered in the corner away from them.

Axel jiggled a bottle of milk between the bars of the barrier. “Come. You need to eat,” he murmured. Ithuba watched him, fear in his eyes.

Axel splattered some milk on the ground. Ithuba gave a little hungry squeak and shuffled a few steps closer. “A few more steps,” Axel encouraged gently.

Ithuba stared at him, ventured closer. Axel stretched forward and nuzzled the milk bottle gently against Ithuba’s lips. Then, finally, his mouth opened and he latched. His eyes fluttered close and he drank and drank.

thula-thula-6_101620113151.jpgIthuba (pictured with his carers Megan and Axel) set about testing the limits of every structure in the orphanage.

An hour later he drank a second bottle. But then colic struck. He began to shiver and jerk about in his sleep. Then he woke up and was so scared and confused he spun around the room in a panic, peeing all over the place and flinging himself up against the wall.

The vet told us, “What Ithuba is going through is not surprising. People think post-traumatic stress is only experienced by humans, but we see it in wounded elephants, rhinos and in military dogs as well.”

“What else can we do to help him?” I asked.

“Routine and love,” the vet replied. “And when he starts to feel safe he’ll begin to heal.”

The next day we opened the gate to his outside boma (enclosure) as soon as he finished his bottle. Ithuba trotted to the threshold, nose high to catch the scents, but he didn’t venture any further. Two days of timid inspection followed, then he suddenly headed straight for a tyre lying close to his open door. He sniffed it with great interest, then gave it a headbutt and tossed it over his head. He was so surprised! It landed with such a thump that he bolted back to his room. Two steps forward, one step back.

Slowly Ithuba’s nightmares became less frequent. His insecurity faded and his appetite exploded. In three months, he doubled his weight and turned into a happy little rhino tank.

With size and confidence he gave himself the job of Quality Control Inspector, and proceeded to expose every construction weakness in the orphanage, usually smashing his way through to prove his point. Soon every door, lock and barrier had been tested, and strengthened and repaired, and no rhino calf was ever going to break out.

Which was just as well, because his days of being the orphanage’s only calf were fast coming to an end.

By the beginning of 2016 we had taken in six rhino calves and one baby elephant. We had achieved so much. And for the first time since Lawrence died, I began to feel that all the fires had been put out and I could focus on the animals and the reserve … and growing Lawrence’s legacy.

thula-thula-7_101620113223.jpgThabo and Ntombi, now all grown up, go for a stroll with Françoise and her dogs, Gin and Gypsy.

***

Françoise Malby-Anthony continues to run Thula Thula, where she acknowledges that there is always more to do to protect the animals. Elephants are poached for their ivory. Hippos are killed for their meat and teeth. And rhinos are being wiped out for their horns. Rhino horn is prized for its medicinal value—which is largely fictitious. Yet, when a poacher sees a rhino, all he sees is money.

In February 2017, five armed men invaded Thula Thula, looking for rhino horn. They killed one rhino, fatally wounded another and assaulted one of the Thula Thula caregivers. The attack forced Françoise to temporarily close down her orphanage and motivated her to build up her security operation yet again. But, giving up was never in her genes. “I have learnt to hold on to my dreams, always to search for the silver lining,” she says, “and that by looking forward the difficulties of the past eventually fade out of sight.”

As of last report, Thula Thula’s herd of elephants has grown to 29 and counting. The orphanage has been expanded into a rescue and rehabilitation centre for wounded or orphaned wildlife. The elephant Tom is alive and well. Thabo and Ntombi are 10 years old and a happy, inseparable couple. “I’m impatiently waiting for them to make me a rhino granny,” Françoise says.

In addition to the main guest-lodge, there is now a volunteer academy near the rehabilitation centre where people from all over the world can learn the ways of the African bush and the value of conservation for the well-being of themselves and the planet.

Thula Thula is just about to be expanded by 2,500 hectares. “We are turning Lawrence’s vision of creating a huge conservation area into a growing, sustainable legacy for generations to come,” Françoise says.

 
From the book An Elephant in my Kitchen by Françoise Malby-Anthony with Katja Willemsen, Copyright © 2018 by Françoise Malby-Anthony with Katja Willemsen. Reprinted by permission of Pan Macmillan Ltd. All rights reserved.
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