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Lessons from the Elephant Whisperer

For most of us, Africa’s another universe, a land of giants. But when Lawrence Anthony gave shelter to a herd of rogue elephants, he learnt a very special truth. A thought leader, a dreamer, and idealist right through to the end, he has a message we all could learn from. Curious?

Lawrence Anthony was a South African conservationist, and proud owner of Thula Thula game reserve. One day, he received a phone call: the sort of phone call you kind of wish you’d put down as soon as you accept. There was a herd of elephants several hundred miles distant in some pretty deep trouble- a matriarch gone rogue and killed, causing riot amidst the rest and threats of culling within days. In Africa, there’s no such thing as compromise. Once an elephant herd is out of control, it is inevitably shot.

So Lawrence was asked if he would take on this herd- give them a new home on his own property. To do so would be the act of a madman: risking his own life and those of his staff, a fortune in property damage and with an exceedingly slim chance of success. So of course he said yes. What happened next would change his life forever…

The elephants broke out of the reserve twice and killed one of his rhino, yet still he persevered. Eventually he earned their trust- they saved his life during a wildfire, and came to mourn at his house after his passing. He shared a connection that few could dream of, going beyond the age-old species boundary and all the more powerful as a result.

Quite the bedtime story, isn’t it? Wouldn’t we all love to talk to elephants? They’re amazing creatures, and we’ve barely seen the tip of the iceburg when it comes to understanding them. They can sleep standing up, tell how full a cornflakes packet is by smell alone, and hear through their feet. If there is any more useful set of attributes out there, I’m yet to find it. Check out this video on how they communicate with each other…

Impressive, right? I don’t know about you, but I sometimes struggle to make out someone talking at five metres’ distance, much less five kilometres! The best bit is: some day soon we might just be able to understand them. Some very clever scientists (aren’t they all?) are using computers to map out languages in hundreds of dimensions. They find how often words appear together and draw this in a super-complicated web that you couldn’t hope to imagine. By comparing these webs, they’ve decoded ancient human languages with the tiniest scraps of evidence, and are setting about doing the same for animals too.

The French playwright Peter Corneille once said: “If anyone wants to know what elephants are like, they are like people only more so.” It couldn’t be more true. They give each other their trunks to suck for comfort, mourn and weep over their dead, use tools, solve complicated problems… you name it. They can even by left or right trunked. Then there’s all the history we might talk about with them: Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, war and peace, times of drought and times of plenty they’ve lived through alongside humans. Oh… and the weather!

So there it is. Elephants are kind, clever, compassionate and boast some skills we can barely dream of. There is so much we could learn from them, and impossibly this reality of our talking might not be all that far away. One final thought, here from our friends at TED: a new project, that is to create the interspecies internet.

It seems we might not be the only ones talking, with dolphins and elephants and chimpanzees all on the list. Thanks to the internet we can speak to each other from across the world, and send you our daily articles to read. Why can’t animals do the same? Give a million chimps enough time and typewriters and they’ll produce Shakespeare’s complete works. That’s something I’ve got to see.

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