An elephant in my kitchen How Françoise Malby Anthony ended up running an animal orphanage in SA
How does a glamorous urban blonde end up running an animal orphanage? Françoise Malby Anthony tells her incredible tale of love, loss, and baby elephants
The first time Françoise, who’s originally from France, visited the South African bush with her then-boyfriend and later-to-be husband, Lawrence, she had no idea what was in store for her. “I was a city girl,” she laughs. “I’d never been to a zoo, and I’d never even owned a pet! Suddenly, here we were surrounded by rhinos. Lawrence said a group of them was called a ‘crash’. I was terrified.”
Some 30 years later, Françoise, 63, is now an undisputed wildlife expert, and the boss of KZN’S Thula Thula game reserve and lodge, which she and renowned conservationist Lawrence created together.
They made the most unlikely couple. Françoise was a sophisticated blonde with a high-flying career at the French Chamber of Commerce, while Lawrence was a craggy, bearded South African with a passion for nature. They met in a taxi queue in London, where both were travelling on business. “In that chance moment, my life completely changed forever,” she says, speaking from Thula Thula. “Without it, I would probably still never have seen an elephant.”
Lawrence soon persuaded Françoise to move to South Africa and, in 1999, the couple opened the reserve. Lawrence then talked her into adopting a herd of highly dangerous wild elephants. The animals were wreaking havoc in the region and putting themselves in
constant danger of being shot. At first, the troubled animals charged any human who approached them, but Lawrence developed such a close bond with them he earned the nickname ‘The Elephant Whisperer’. Over the years, they grew in number from nine to 29.
“There were some serious ups and downs, but Lawrence and I made a good team – he was the person who managed everything to do with the animals, while I was behind the scenes dealing with the sta, the catering.” The only time Françoise was left in sole charge of the animals was during the 2003 Iraq War, when Lawrence went o to rescue the animals from Baghdad Zoo – a mission that’s now being turned into a film. “That was bloody tough. I was very glad to see him back,” admits Françoise.
It was a stormy morning in 2012 when Françoise received a phone call telling her Lawrence, who was away for work, had died, quite unexpectedly, aged
61, of a heart attack. “I was numb with shock, totally lost. I didn’t know where to start, how the future could work.”
Within hours of the news, all the reserve’s elephants arrived at the couple’s house in a procession – it was the first time that they’d come near it in six months. “We were all in shock and the elephants sensed it. They crossed miles and miles of wilderness to mourn with us, sitting in front of the house for hours like they do when one of their own dies. Just looking at them made me gather myself. I realised that I was on my own, but that I had to carry on. I couldn’t leave. Everybody needed me – the animals, and the 50 or so people whom we employed. Somehow, we all had to survive together.”
The elephants – who returned the following year exactly on the anniversary of Lawrence’s death – buoyed Françoise through the next few turbulent months, as she rapidly educated herself about conservation and running the reserve. While some sta helped her, others were hostile to their new, female boss. “They regarded me as this foreign blonde and didn’t trust me to hold Thula Thula together,” she recalls.
The task facing her was daunting. Like all African game reserves, Thula Thula is a target for vicious poachers who will stop at nothing to obtain rhino horns. These are worth hundreds of thousands on the black market in Asia, and are sold to people who believe – wrongly – that they can cure cancer. Right now, around three rhinos are killed in SA every day, and poaching of other species, such as elephant and girae, is rising rapidly.
Just two weeks after Lawrence’s death, poachers shot at one of the orphan rhinos Françoise was caring for, only just missing him. Soon afterwards, she heard a baby elephant had trapped his face in one of the hundreds of snares hidden all over the reserve’s 4 500 hectares, leaving him unable to suckle his distraught mother. A helicopter had to scatter the herd before the calf could be tranquillised and the snare removed.
“The poachers are incredibly violent,” Françoise says. “They have no heart, no consideration for anything. If they carry on at this rate, within 20 years there will be no more wild animals left in Africa.”
To fight back, Françoise founded an animal orphanage to raise babies whose mothers had been slaughtered. Like many reserve owners, she eventually made the heartbreaking decision to ‘dehorn’ the reserve’s two adult rhinos, Thabo and Ntombi, so the poachers had nothing to steal. “For years I said ‘A rhino without a horn is not a rhino’, but in the end I had no choice if I was to save them. The rhinos don’t feel the horn being removed, but I couldn’t bear to see it.”
Despite heightened security, last year, two men armed with axes and guns breached the electric fence of the animal orphanage. These poachers held six young volunteer sta hostage, seriously assaulting one, then shot two 18-month-old rhinos for their tiny horns. One died instantly, the other was badly injured; they defaced him while he was still alive, poking out his eyes, in keeping with a local superstition that eyes have memories. “It was a nightmare; the lowest point of my time here,” Françoise says sadly. “I have no children, my family are the animals and sta at Thula Thula, and I am responsible for them. For a while, I lost faith in mankind and all hope that we could ever save the rhinos.”
To keep motivated, Françoise focused on joyous memories, such as the time she discovered a 10-day-old elephant in her garden. “It was like a dream – very strange, because it’s unusual for a calf to lose its mother. The herd was far away at the other end of the reserve; the baby could have been attacked by a hyena or a snake. She weighed about 120kg and, after chasing her for a long time, we pushed her into the house and there she was, running around the kitchen and >>
‘Baby elephants are the sweetest, most gentle little things’
trying to eat my lounge. It was just delightful; you simply cannot be scared of a baby elephant. A baby rhino can bowl you over, but these are the sweetest, most gentle, adorable things.”
The team fed the calf water and milk through the pierced thumb of a latex glove. “She had been away from her mother for more than 18 hours, so she drank and drank and then, like all babies, she had a little nap in my living room!”
Later that night, Françoise’s team returned the baby to the herd. “It was very risky – the elephants might have charged us in the dark, and they might not have wanted to reintegrate a baby who’d been with humans. Happily, the mother took her back, and today the baby’s a naughty fouryear-old and thriving. But it will always be a mystery why she wandered o in the first place. My sta believe Lawrence’s spirit guided her to me, because he knew I’d keep her safe.”
Françoise was also enchanted by the friendship that developed between a hippo, Charlie, and a rhino, Makhosi; each less than a week old. Both had been brought to her orphanage terrified and disoriented. “Makhosi ran straight up to Charlie, climbed onto his mattress, snuggled up and went to sleep. After that, they were inseparable, cuddling up together if they were cold. If one demanded a bottle, the other would, too,” she recalls. “Humans can learn so many lessons from how dierent species of animals accept each other.”
Most of all, Françoise’s spirits were kept high by the elephants she and Lawrence had nurtured and who, in her toughest times, were always there for her. “We had a terrible drought two years ago. I was very concerned; so many reserves had to put down their game because there was no grass to feed them. Finally, it rained and – of all the water pools in the reserve – the entire herd headed to the one outside my house, tumbling around happily in mud dug up with their tusks and trunks that flew through the air in huge arcs. It was spectacular, like a show that was saying ‘Thanks for the rain’. For all of us living here, there is a sense we are survivors. We won’t give up.”
So busy was Françoise managing the reserve that finding love again never occurred to her. “I really was not looking. I thought I was going to immerse myself in Thula Thula for the rest of my life,” she says. But four years ago, sitting in a bar with friends, she met Clément and they quickly fell in love. “He has been my rock. With the life I lead, you have to be tolerant. Clément is always so gentle and understanding.”
A key moment in the relationship came when she first introduced Clément to the elephant herd. “The oldest bull, Gobisa, strode right up to the 4x4 and stopped in front of Clément, then floated his trunk over his chest, exploring his face. My rangers said as the herd’s old man he had to check out my new mate, and he left reassured that I was happy and had found someone who would never come between me and them.”
Clément lives two hours away in Durban, but Françoise remains at Thula Thula. “There’s so much to do, there’s never a dull moment,” she says. Besides planning the reserve’s 20th anniversary celebrations, she has also opened a volunteers’ academy to teach future generations about conservation. “Retiring isn’t in my vocabulary,” Françoise exclaims. “I still think I’m 20. When you have a goal, you don’t see the years go by. With a focus, you don’t feel age.”
‘Humans can learn lessons from how animals accept each other’
Elephants grazing near the guest lodge; baby Tom with Françoise in the kitchen
Françoise with rhinos Thabo and Ntombi; with sta members; and with Lawrence
Françoise’s An Elephant In My Kitchen (Pan Macmillan) is available at Exclusive Books. w&h