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

Woman & Home (South Africa) - - In this issue... -

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.

Los­ing Lawrence

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 gira€e, 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.”

Dark days

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!”

Guid­ing spirit

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 oˆ in the first place. My staˆ 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 diˆer­ent 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

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