In an accent as rich and silky as French onion soup, Françoise Malby Anthony describes her first meeting with Lawrence Anthony, the late award-winning conservationist. “I was in London for a trade show and we both needed a taxi to Earls Court, but I didn’t want to share one with this guy.”
The story of how they finally travelled together on the Underground is a far cry from the life they were destined to share at Thula Thula Private Game Lodge in Africa. Fast forward to 1987 when Lawrence persuaded Françoise, who had a high-powered corporate job, to move to South Africa.
It was even more of a surprise when ten years later, “he said we were going to live in the bush on a really run-down hunting reserve. It was another world.
“His vision was for a massive conservation area. He thought money grew on a magic tree, but I knew we would not survive financially, and said we must build a lodge ‘to keep the soup on the table’, as we say in French.”
A year after they bought the reserve, the elephants arrived – a rogue herd that was to be shot. “That’s when the adventure started. I had never seen an elephant before. In 2000 we opened the lodge and I was in charge of running it – the staff, the training, marketing, reservations, and the kitchen.”
Françoise put her heart and soul into the lodge, with a passion and energy that matched that of her husband. Lawrence was consumed by his conservation plans, the rehabilitation of the adopted herd, founding The Earth Organisation, and writing. One book after the other followed: Babylon’s Ark about the animal rescue at the bombed Baghdad Zoo, The Elephant Whisperer that tells the story of his relationship with the Thula Thula herd, and The Last Rhinos about saving rhinos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Then disaster struck in 2012. Lawrence died of a heart attack. Aside from the insurmountable grief, “I was now responsible for everything, including the business side. Salaries and bills had to be paid and I had to learn to take advice from people who knew more than me – the rangers and wildlife managers. We are a big family and I was lucky to be surrounded by the right people.” But it didn’t stop there.
“Two weeks after Lawrence died, our rhino Thabo was shot. On top of that, I was told we had too many elephants – the original herd of seven had grown significantly.”
Poaching is terrorism
There were endless decisions to be made about elephant contraception and the dehorning of the rhinos. Also a suspicious offer of free rhinos. “I may be blonde and talk funny, but I’m not naive. After Thabo was shot, I started the Thula Thula Rhino Fund to pay for extra security.”
Later came the orphanage – now the rehabilitation centre – realising a dream that she and Lawrence had long held. Her eyes flash and cloud as she talks of the devastating attack on it. “I got a call at two o’clock in the morning. I rushed up but it was awful to see the horrors of it, a criminal act beyond imagination. I compare poaching to terrorism, like putting a bomb in a shopping centre”.
She collects herself and moves on to the subject of her more recent, successful Volunteer Academy where a team of skilled rangers, vets and conservationists teach young local and international volunteers what’s really involved in wildlife conservation and reserve management. “Education is key to conservation,” she says.
Within days of Lawrence’s death, the Thula Thula herd arrived at the house as if to pay their respects. “They came three years in a row on the anniversary of his death. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence.”
“Many people inspired by The Elephant Whisperer visit Thula Thula, but so much has happened since then,” Françoise says. “When I returned from my book launch in London, one of the elephants named Frankie pitched up in my garden.” A new relationship is developing, and the story continues. And yes, there really was a baby elephant in her kitchen once.
An Elephant In My Kitchen (R290), co-written with Katja Willemsen, is published by Pan Macmillan www.panmacmillan.co.za