Thula Thula Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal first captured the imaginations of people all over the world when, The Elephant Whisperer, a beautiful memoir by late owner, Lawrence Anthony hit shelves in 2009.
It tells the story of how Lawrence and his wife, Francoise, set to work realising their vision of creating a safe haven for wild animals, while working closely with the surrounding local communities. At the heart of the story, however, is a herd of ‘problem’ elephants who found a new home at Thula Thula and soon became the reserve’s biggest drawcard. The book largely revolves around the special relationship Lawrence had with them, particularly Nana, their matriarch.
Prior to her life with Lawrence, Francoise had been living a fast-pace urban life in Paris and never imagined that she’d end up making a magnificent life in the African bush. The couple had a perfect synthesis, Lawrence knee-deep in conservation and Francoise working tirelessly behind the scenes on the business aspects of Thula Thula.
When Lawrence passed away unexpectedly in 2012, however, Francoise was suddenly faced with the almost unthinkable task of having to step into the frontlines of conservation herself.
She shares this remarkable journey in her new memoir, An Elephant in my Kitchen. Picking up where The Elephant Whisperer left off, the book is filled with heart-warming animal anecdotes, gut-wrenching tragedy and even the flickering of new love.
I gave Francoise a call to find out a bit more about it.
Firstly, congratulations on your new book. It’s absolutely beautiful! You must be so excited to have it out in the world?
Thank you! And yes, absolutely! I mean, it took off so quickly. It’s been such an amazing, beautiful surprise – people seem to love the book!
How long has it been in the making – when did you start writing?
About a year-and-a-half ago. We could have put a lot more in there, because, you know, in the bush there’s always something happening. But eventually we had to stop writing it and end on a positive note. That does also leave the possibility of doing another one afterwards, though!
There are just so many adventures in the bush – it never stops.
So, you co-wrote the book with Katja Willemsen. What is your connection? How did your writing process work?
I met her through my friend, Kim McCleod, whose picture of the elephants we’ve actually used on the cover of the book. And we just saw straight away that we could work together. She’s a wonderful lady and she writes beautifully – she’s got so much talent.
I sent her recordings about my life and she came to Thula Thula twice to experience it for herself and understand the environment. She also got to meet all my game rangers and staff.
So, I think for the both of us, it all worked out perfectly.
As you said, there’s always something happening in the bush and An Elephant In My Kitchen is really testament to this. I loved all the little anecdotes and stories – sweet, funny, sad, the whole spectrum of emotions – about all the different animals that play such an important role in your life. So, among all of them, is there any one that you think has crawled deepest into your heart?
Maybe the one is Thabo, the little rhino orphan we got when he was only four months old. I went to fetch him in Hoedspruit at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. We drove him back to Thula Thula with a game ranger and his carer, Elaine, which took about 16 hours. It was a very tough drive - I mean we were in a vehicle with a trailer and a 170kg baby rhino in the back! But, of course, it was an adventure on its own.
And afterwards, I just fell in love with Thabo, because he had such a character. He had been orphaned at one day old and had never really seen other rhinos before – all he really knew was humans!
Ah, yes! I love the stories about Thabo. There’s also a moment in the book when he experiences an attempt on his own life, which is a devastating thing to happen to any rhino, but knowing his traumatic history just makes it so much worse.
Yes, that was a huge shock, because it also came only two weeks after Lawrence passed away. So, someone had obviously taken advantage of the weakness of our situation at Thula Thula.
This was a big wake-up call for me as well, because this is when I realised that I had to get involved with protecting the animals. Before, I wasn’t involved in the conservation side of things – that was all Lawrence’s job.
When Thabo got shot, I realised it was my job and I had to do everything I could to protect them.
This was the thing that probably stood out most to me in the book – how you had to switch gears completely from being the strong backbone of Thula Thula behind the scenes to taking on all these challenges that had previously been handled by Lawrence. In essence, fighting at the forefront. How did you experience this transition? Was there sort of a conservation boy’s club that you had to battle your way into?
Oh absolutely! It’s very much a boy’s club, but I simply had to get in there.
Six-and-a-half years ago, when Lawrence died, I really didn’t know much about conservation. Running the business side was already quite a handful, so I concentrated my energy on that and Lawrence concentrated his on conservation.
So, when Lawrence passed away I had to learn from scratch. Fortunately, I had my rangers and people who could guide me. But it was still scary to be faced with the reality and challenges of having to run a game reserve.
There’s always something that’s happening – either poaching or a baby elephant that’s in trouble or the discovery of a snare. It just never stops. It’s our life here in the bush!
And you know, when I was sending all the recordings to Katja, at one stage she told me: “Stop! I’m exhausted by your life. Just listening to your life on these recordings, I get exhausted!”
As tiring as it can be, the love of wildlife really gets into your soul. And you end up loving the animals so much that you would really do anything to protect them.
What’s really wonderful, is to realise that the whole team – from the rangers to the hospitality staff – share the same passion and vision for conservation. This is what’s wonderful about it.
Poaching is obviously one of the things that affects Thula Thula – and all other reserves in South Africa – quite severely. You talk a lot about it in the book, so could you maybe share your perspective on it? Maybe you can share a bit about the horrifying incident that took place at your orphanage last year?
We were hit by a huge tragedy last year when poachers broke into our rhino orphanage and killed two of the calves for their little horns. There are no words to express exactly what happened – it’s been the most traumatising event we’ve had at Thula Thula in the twenty years we’ve been here. I describe it in a lot of detail in the book – it was an extremely painful and difficult for me to write those chapters.
What those guys did was just absolutely barbaric, and they’ve never been caught. This is what we don’t understand. Now this kind of poaching is really just driven by greed.
What have you been doing to combat these sorts of attacks?
We actually had another serious poaching incident about three weeks ago, where nine guys came into the game reserve and even shot at the elephant and antelope. What they wanted, we don’t know, but they were heavily armed.
But, fortunately, our team performed a very successful anti-poaching action – they arrested six guys, shot one dead and another one is in hospital.
And I think this just shows that we’ve had enough!
It’s not ideal that we have to react with violence, but it’s self-defence as well. I mean, our anti-poaching team had to fight those guys the whole night.
Another way to fight poaching is, of course, through education. Not only in South Africa, but also at the receiving end in the countries where they buy the rhino horn.
Locally, there’s also a lot of work to be done in educating people about rhino poaching. We want to show the youth that poaching actually endangers their own survival, because if we have no animals left a few years down the line, no tourist will want to come here anymore. Tourism is a big asset for South Africa and protecting our wildlife is an essential part of keeping it alive and well.
Our rhinos are also under 24-hour guard and have satellite collars.
Do you think the government is doing enough to support the battle against rhino poaching?
I would love to see the government stepping in a bit more.
A good example of this is that nobody was arrested after that terrible attack on the orphanage. How come they were not found?
For me, that’s just totally surreal that nobody got penalised.
So, yes, it would be nice to have a little bit more support.
Onto some lighter topics – what I find really special about Thula Thula is the fact that you work so closely with the local communities. Can you tell a bit more about that?
Yes! Out of the 60 employees we have at Thula Thula, more than 55 are from the local communities. They have been trained here and most of them have been here for a very long time.
We also recently created the Thula Thula Volunteers Academy, which is to educate and inspire people from all over the world, but also from the local communities. Out of the eight volunteers who can apply to join us, at least one must be from a community close to Thula Thula and they do not pay for the experience.
My game rangers also often go out to schools in the area to educate the young people about anti-poaching, the consequences of poaching and about all the conservation efforts we’re continuously busy with to help protect our heritage. And the cherry on top is that we invite them to come on game drives at Thula Thula to see the elephants and rhinos and the beauty of the bush themselves. This also helps them understand why people travel from all over the world to experience this.
In the book, you mention that shortly after Lawrence’s passing Thula Thula’s bookings dropped quite dramatically, as everyone thought you’d be heading back to France. It must have taken quite a bit of tenacity to prove everyone wrong and show them that you ain’t going anywhere?
Oh yes! I never, ever had the intention of returning to France. It would have been like leaving my family, my children behind. It just never crossed my mind.
Of course, I knew it was going to be hard and there were a lot of challenges I had to face. But, you know, adversity always has the tendency to open doors to new opportunities. So, it was really all about never giving up and being willing to learn. You never stop learning in life.
And you know what? We just celebrated twenty years at Thula Thula in June, which means we’ve stood the test of time.
We’re busy with more projects than ever before – the elephant habitat expansion project, the volunteer academy, the rehabilitation centre.
It’s all about keeping the dream alive.
So, we’re reaching our time limit, but we simply cannot end off the interview without a little update on the herd! How are they doing? Do you see them often?
Well, the latest news is that Frankie [the herd’s current matriarch] is coming to see me often at the moment. She even comes into my garden! She’s getting very, very close.
Which means, she even steps over the electric wire on the ground to be close to wear I am. She knows she’s not meant to come in, but she doesn’t care obviously.
The other night, I was cleaning something in the garden and because it was dark I couldn’t see so well. Then I suddenly saw this big tree moving and it was her!
It’s really special that she’s doing this, because I always thought that she didn’t really like me. But now we seem to be best friends.
This reminds me how the whole herd came to your house a day after Lawrence’s passing – as if to pay respects – and then returned again on the anniversary of his death a year later. How many times did this happen?
They did it for three years in a row, on exactly the same day at the same time.
People can say whatever they want about something like this. It’s not a coincidence. Lawrence had such an amazing relationship with that herd that it was very possible that they’d come back three years a row to pay their respects. It’s really phenomenal.
In fact, in the twenty years we’ve been at Thula Thula, we’ve seen so many incredible phenomena for which there is just no scientific explanation.
You just have to interpret it with your own soul and belief
And that’s the beauty of it!
Find out more about the amazing work being done by Francoise and her team by visiting the Thula Thula website and grab your copy of An Elephant in my Kitchen at your favourite bookstore or online.
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