The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild

The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild

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by Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence

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When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a herd of "rogue" wild elephants on his Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand, his common sense told him to refuse. But he was the herd's last chance of survival: they would be killed if he wouldn't take them.

In order to save their lives, Anthony took them in. In the years that followed

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When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a herd of "rogue" wild elephants on his Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand, his common sense told him to refuse. But he was the herd's last chance of survival: they would be killed if he wouldn't take them.

In order to save their lives, Anthony took them in. In the years that followed he became a part of their family. And as he battled to create a bond with the elephants, he came to realize that they had a great deal to teach him about life, loyalty, and freedom.

The Elephant Whisperer is a heartwarming, exciting, funny, and sometimes sad account of Anthony's experiences with these huge yet sympathetic creatures. Set against the background of life on an African game reserve, with unforgettable characters and exotic wildlife, it is a delightful book that will appeal to animal lovers and adventurous souls everywhere.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Anthony, writing with editor and journalist Spence, is a conservationist who owns and manages extensive property in South Africa and has taken on the daunting task of serving as a buffer between native peoples and endangered species. The title is somewhat misleading: Anthony admits that his book has nothing to do with understanding elephant habits and behaviors. In 1999, the author somewhat reluctantly agreed to foster a herd of elephants that had a longstanding reputation for breaking out of protected reserves and running amuck in the countryside. To prevent the herd from being shot, Anthony took them in to his 5000-acre game reserve. VERDICT Despite Anthony's awards and recognition for his conservation efforts, this book falls short in terms of holding reader interest. The writing doesn't do justice to Anthony's efforts to save these animals. It is drawn out and lacks the spark and engagement that descriptive writing creates in the reader. A disappointment even for those who like memoirs and African wildlife. A marginal purchase. (Photos not seen.) [Library marketing campaign.]—Edell M. Schaefer, Brookfield P.L., WI
Kirkus Reviews
South African conservationist and Earth Organization founder Anthony spins the uplifting story of his wildlife reserve. "In 1999, I was asked to accept a herd of troubled wild elephants on my game reserve," writes the author at the beginning of this robust portrait of Thula Thula, the game land he owns, in cooperation with a number of Zulu tribes, in Zululand-5,000 acres of raw landscape that is thought to have been part of the exclusive hunting grounds of the Zulu king. No longer, since Anthony now runs it as a conservationist lodge, but it continues to produce colorful tales of wild discovery. Most prominent are the many fascinating stories that surround his adoption of the elephants, an unruly bunch he endeavors to make at home on the reserve. With a combination of intuition and experience, the author intelligently discusses many aspects of elephant behavior. But Thula Thula is far more than an experiment in elephant reintroduction; it's a slice of primal Africa home to Cape buffalo, white rhinoceros, leopards, crocodile, deadly puff adders and massive pythons. This, of course, makes it a target for poachers, and Anthony displays a manly, hardened edge. But he also demonstrates sensitivity and nuance in his dealings with Zulu tribal politics, especially when it comes to the cattle ranchers who want to take control of his land. Though the prose occasionally becomes mawkish-as in his "born-free adolescence," remembered "as vividly as a lovelorn youth recalling his first heart-thudding kiss"-Anthony's bone-deep mission is bracing and his courage is inspiring. Energetic firsthand reportage from the heart of the African wild.
From the Publisher

“Anthony has made a difference in the lives of many magnificent animals who otherwise would have been lost to the world. When you're feeling down and out and defeated and ready to give up, read this inspiring book and share it widely with others.” —Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals

“In my thirty-five years of studying man/animal communication I have met only a few individuals who have the ability to enter into the metaphysical realm of the exotic animal. Lawrence Anthony has been there and back. His wonderfully written book The Elephant Whisperer is a true reflection of his ability to be one of the pachyderms.” —Ralph Helfer, author of Modoc

“A lovingly written tale of close encounters, some beautiful and some frightening, with humans and nonhumans alike. Anthony's story of his trials and tribulations in preserving a herd of African elephants is a parable for the continent.” —Irene M. Pepperberg, author of Alex & Me

“An engaging and vividly personal account, The Elephant Whisperer invites you in, as confidant and confederate, from the first page and holds you rapt to the very last. A compelling reminder of the power and mysteries of the natural world, Thula Thula's elephants are lucky to have a friend like Lawrence Anthony.” —Amelia Thomas, author of The Zoo on the Road to Nablus

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The Elephant Whisperer

My Life with the Herd in the African Wild

By Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8645-8


In the distance, the percussive shot of a rifle sounded like a giant stick of firewood cracking.

I jumped out of my chair, listening. It was a sound wired into a game ranger's psyche. Then came a burst ... crack-crack-crack. Flocks of squawking birds scrambled, silhouetted in the crimson sunset.

Poachers. On the west boundary.

David, my ranger, was already sprinting for the trusty old Land Rover. I grabbed a shotgun and followed, leaping into the driver's seat. Max, my brindle Staffordshire bull terrier, scrambled onto the seat between us. With all the excitement buzzing he was not going to be left behind.

As I twisted the ignition key and floored the accelerator, David grabbed the two-way radio.

'Ndonga!' he bellowed. 'Ndonga, are you receiving? Over!'

Ndonga was the head of my Ovambo guards and a good man to have on your side in a gunfight, having served in the military. I would have felt better knowing him and his team were on their way but only static greeted David's attempts to contact him. We powered on alone.

Poachers had been the scourge of our lives since my fiancée Françoise and I bought Thula Thula, a magnificent game reserve in central Zululand. They had been targeting us for almost a year now. I couldn't work out who they were or where they were coming from. I had talked often with the izinduna – headmen – of the surrounding rural Zulu tribes and they were adamant that their people were not involved. I believed them. Our employees were mainly local and exceptionally loyal. These thugs had to be from somewhere else.

Twilight was darkening fast and I slowed as we approached the western fence and killed the headlights. Pulling over behind a large anthill, David was first out as we eased through a cluster of acacia trees, nerves on edge, trigger fingers tense, watching and listening. Tightly choked pump-action scatterguns with heavy pellets were our weapons of choice against poachers, for in the dark, in the bush, things are about as close and personal as you can get. As any game ranger in Africa knows, professional poachers will shoot first and shoot to kill.

The fence was just fifty yards away. Poachers like to keep their escape route open and I made a circling motion with my arm to David. He nodded, knowing exactly what I meant. He would keep watch while I crawled to the fence to cut off the retreat if a firefight erupted.

An acrid whiff of cordite spiced the evening air. It hung like a shroud in the silence. In Africa the bush is never willingly mute; the cicadas never cease. Except after gunshots.

After a few minutes of absolute stillness, I knew we had been set up. I switched on my halogen torch, sweeping its beam up and down the fence. There were no gaps revealing where a poacher could have cut his way in. David flicked on his torch as well, searching for tracks or blood spoor indicating if an animal had been killed and dragged off.

Nothing. Just an eerie silence.

With no tracks inside the reserve I realized the shots must have been fired from just outside the fence.

'Damn, it's a decoy.'

As I said that, we heard more shots – muffled but distinctive 'crumps' on the far side of the reserve, at least forty-five minutes' drive on dirt tracks that often are little more than quagmires in the spring rains.

We jumped back into the Land Rover and sped off, but I knew it was hopeless. We had been taken for suckers. We would never catch them. They would be off the reserve with a couple of slain nyala – one of Africa's most beautiful antelopes – before we got near.

I cursed my foolhardiness. If I had only sent some rangers to the far side instead of charging off blindly, we could have caught them red-handed.

But this proved one thing. I now knew for certain the izindunas who had been claiming my problems were internal – someone operating within the reserve – were spot on. This was not the local community's work. It was not a few hungry tribesmen and scrawny dogs hunting for the pot. This was a well-organized criminal operation led by someone who followed our every move. How else could they have timed everything so perfectly?

It was pitch-dark when we arrived at the eastern perimeter of the reserve and we traced the scene with our torches. The tracks told the story. Two nyala had been taken with high-velocity hunting rifles. We could see the flattened bloodstained grass from where their carcasses were dragged to a hole in the fence, which had been crudely hacked with bolt cutters. About ten yards outside the fence were the studded muddy tracks of a 4x4 bush vehicle that by now would be several miles away. The animals would be sold to local butchers who would use them for biltong, a dried meat jerky that is much prized throughout Africa.

The light of my torch picked up a bloody tuft of charcoal-grey fur fluttering on the cut fence wire. At least one of the dead bucks was a male – the female nyala is light brown with thin white stripes on her back.

I shivered, feeling old and weary. Thula Thula had been a hunting ranch before I had bought it and I had vowed that would end. No animal would be needlessly killed again on my watch. I didn't realize how difficult that vow would be to keep.

Despondently we drove back to the lodge. Françoise greeted us with mugs of dark, rich coffee. Just what I needed.

I glanced at her and smiled my thanks. Tall, graceful and very French, she was just as beautiful as the day I had first met her catching a taxi on a freezing London morning twelve years ago.

'What happened?' she asked.

'A set-up. There were two groups. One fired some shots on the far boundary, then watched our Land Rover lights. As soon as we got there, the others bagged two buck on the eastern side.'

I took a gulp of coffee and sat down. 'These guys are organized; someone's going to get killed if we're not careful.'

Françoise nodded. Three days ago the poachers had been so close it felt as if their bullets were whistling a fraction above our heads.

'Better report it to the cops tomorrow,' she said.

I didn't reply. To expect the police to pay much attention to two murdered antelope was pushing it a little.

Ndonga was furious the next morning when I told him that more animals had been shot. He admonished me for not calling him. I said we had tried but failed to get a response.

'Oh ... sorry, Mr Anthony. I went out for a few drinks last night. Not feeling too good today,' he said, grinning sheepishly.

I didn't feel like discussing his hangover. 'Can you make this a priority?' I asked.

He nodded. 'We'll catch these bastards.'

I had barely got back to the house when the phone rang. A woman introduced herself: Marion Garai from the Elephant Managers and Owners Association (EMOA), a private organization comprised of several elephant owners in South Africa that takes an interest in elephant welfare. I had heard of them and the good work they did for elephant conservation before, but as I was not an elephant owner, I had never dealt with them directly.

Her warm voice instantly inspired empathy.

She got straight to the point. She had heard about Thula Thula and the variety of magnificent indigenous Zululand wildlife that we had. She said she had also heard of how we were working closely with the local population in fostering conservation awareness and wondered ... would I be interested in adopting a herd of elephant? The good news, she continued before I could answer, was that I would get them for free, barring capture and transportation costs.

You could have knocked me over with a blade of grass. Elephant? The world's largest mammal? And they wanted to give me a whole herd? For a moment I thought it was a hoax. I mean how often do you get phoned out of the blue asking if you want a herd of tuskers?

But Marion was serious.

OK, I asked; what was the bad news?

Well, said Marion. There was a problem. The elephants were considered 'troublesome'. They had a tendency to break out of reserves and the owners wanted to get rid of them fast. If we didn't take them, they would be put down – shot. All of them.

'What do you mean by troublesome?'

'The matriarch is an amazing escape artist and has worked out how to break through electric fences. She just twists the wire around her tusks until it snaps or takes the pain and smashes through. It's unbelievable. The owners have had enough and now asked if EMOA can sort something out.'

I momentarily pictured a five-ton beast deliberately enduring the agonizing shock of 8,000 volts stabbing through her body. That took determination.

'Also, Lawrence, there are babies involved.'

'Why me?'

Marion sensed my trepidation. This was an extremely unusual request.

'I've heard you have a way with animals,' she continued. 'I reckon Thula Thula's right for them. You're right for them. Or maybe they're right for you.'

That floored me. If anything, we were exactly 'not right' for a herd of elephant. I was only just getting the reserve operational and, as the previous day had spectacularly proved, having huge problems with highly organized poachers.

I was about to say 'no' when something held me back. I have always loved elephants. Not only are they the largest and noblest land creatures on this planet, but they symbolize all that is majestic about Africa. And here, unexpectedly, I was being offered my own herd and a chance to help. Would I ever get an opportunity like this again?

'Where're they from?'

'A reserve in Mpumalanga.'

Mpumalanga is the north-eastern province of South Africa where most of the country's game reserves – including the Kruger National Park – are situated.

'How many?'

'Nine – three adult females, three youngsters, of which one was male, an adolescent bull, and two babies. It's a beautiful family. The matriarch has a gorgeous baby daughter. The young bull, her son, is fifteen years old and an absolutely superb specimen.'

'They must be a big problem. Nobody just gives away elephants.'

'As I said, the matriarch keeps breaking out. Not only does she snap electric wires, she's also learnt how to unlatch gates with her tusks and the owners aren't too keen about jumbos wandering into the guest camps. If you don't take them, they will be shot. Certainly the adults will be.'

I went quiet, trying to unravel all this in my head. The opportunity was great, but so was the risk.

What about the poachers – would the promise of ivory bring even more of them out of the woodwork? What about having to electrify my entire reserve to keep these giant pachyderms in when I could barely keep thieves with high-velocity rifles out? What about having to build an enclosure to quarantine them while they got used to their new home? Where would I find the funds ... the resources?

Also Marion didn't shy away from saying they were 'troublesome'. But what did that really mean? Were they just escape artists? Or was this a genuine rogue herd, too dangerous and filled with hatred of humans to keep on a game reserve in a populated area?

However, here was a herd in trouble. Despite the risks, I knew what I had to do.

'Hell yes,' I replied. 'I'll take them.'


I was still reeling from the shock of becoming an instant elephant-owner, when I got another: the current owners wanted the herd off their property within two weeks. Or else the deal would be off. The elephants would be shot as the owners regarded them as too much of a liability. Unfortunately, when an animal as large as an elephant is considered 'troublesome', it is almost always shot.

Two weeks? In that time we had to repair and electrify twenty miles of big game fencing and build from scratch a quarantine boma – a traditional holding pen – strong enough to hold the planet's most powerful animal.

When I bought Thula Thula, in 1998, it was 5,000 acres of primal Africa, the only improvement being an old hunters' camp with outside ablutions. But its history is as exotic as the continent itself. Thula Thula is the oldest private game reserve in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and thought to be once part of the exclusive hunting grounds of King Shaka, the near-deified warrior who founded the Zulu nation in the early nineteenth century. In fact it was so exclusive that anyone caught hunting there without the king's express permission was put to death.

From Shaka onwards, for most of its existence Thula Thula's teeming wildlife has made it a hunting magnet, attracting wealthy clients seeking trophy antelope. In the 1940s the owner was a retired Governor General of Kenya,who used it as an upmarket shooting lodge for the gin and tonic set.

That's all in the past. Hunting was scrapped the moment we took over. The characterful but dilapidated old biltong and brandy camp was demolished, and in its place we built a small luxury eco-lodge set on expansive lawns leading down to the Nseleni River. The beautiful Old Dutch gabled farmhouse overlooking the reserve became home and offices for Françoise and me.

But to get there has been a personal odyssey. I grew up in 'old' Africa, before the days of mass urbanization, running barefoot under big skies in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. My friends were rural African kids and together we ranged the wild world that was our backyard.

During the early 1960s my family moved to the sugarcane-growing coastal belt of Zululand, South Africa. The hub of the area at the time was a hamlet out in the boondocks called Empangeni. It was a tough town with character. Stories of leathery farmers partying all night and skidding their tractors through the main street swigging 'spook 'n diesel' (cane spirit mixed with a smidgen of Coca-Cola) are still told to this day. For us teenagers, you had to hold your own and play a hard game of rugby to earn respect.

My shooting skills, honed in the deep African bush, also stood me in good stead and farmers sent me out on their lands to bag guinea fowl and grouse for the pot. The backwoods was my home; I could hit a can thrown into the air at twenty paces with a .22 rifle and think little of it.

After finishing school I left for the city, establishing a real estate company. But my youthful memories of wild Africa followed me. I knew one day I would return.

That happened in the early 1990s. I was poring over a map of the area west of Empangeni and was struck by the profusion of unutilized tribal land, far too feral for even the hardiest cattle. These trust lands gallop right up to the borders of the famous Umfolozi-Hluhluwe reserve, the first game sanctuary established anywhere in Africa and where the southern white rhino was saved from extinction.

The trust land, a massive tract of gloriously pristine bush, belonged to six different Zulu clans. An idea light-bulbed in my head: if I could persuade them to join in conserving wildlife instead of hunting or grazing, we could create one of the finest reserves imaginable. But to do this I would have to convince each tribal leader to agree individually to lease the land to a single trust. It would be called the Royal Zulu, and benefits such as job creation would go straight back into the struggling local communities.

Thula Thula, with solid infrastructure already in place was the key to the project. It was a natural wedge abutting the tribal lands and forming a crucial eastern gateway to the reserves. And for the first time in fifty years it was on the market. Destiny? Well ... who knows?

I took a deep breath, spoke nicely – very nicely – to my bank manager and Françoise and I ended up as the new owners.

I fell in love with it from the moment I went walkabout. It's something I still do, jump in the Land Rover and drive out onto the open savannahs or into the thickest, most thorn-scrubbed veldt I can find, and go for a walk. There is nothing more energizing than inhaling the tang of wilderness, loamy after rain, pungent with the richness of earth shuddering with life, or taking in the brisk dry cleanness of winter. In the outback, life is lived for the instant. The land thrums with exuberance when everything is green and lush and is stoically resilient when it isn't. In the bush, simple acts give intense atavistic pleasures, such as sliding a sprig of grass into the tiny slot of a scorpion hole and feeling a tug that pound for pound would rival a game fish. Even today that triggers memories of my born-free adolescence as vividly as a lovelorn youth recalling his first heart-thudding kiss.

So too does the chime of songbirds, the tunesmiths of the planet, where even a panicked warning call is perfectly in pitch. Or watching life's endlessly fascinating passing show, the brutal poetry of the food chain where life is so precarious yet pulses so powerfully in every shape, colour and form.

Those solitary hikes in Thula Thula evoked the path I first walked as a child in untamed places. Now decades later I was bringing a herd of elephants, to me the definitive symbol of wild Africa, back to an ancient Zululand home. Thula Thula's landscape is an elephant's paradise: woodlands leading to sweet savannah, riverbanks choked with nutritious grasses and waterholes that never run dry, even in the bleakest of winters.


Excerpted from The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence. Copyright © 2009 Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

LAWRENCE ANTHONY is an acclaimed conservationist and founder of The Earth Organization. He received the UN's Earth Day award for his work in Baghdad. He lives in Zululand, South Africa.

GRAHAM SPENCE is a journalist and editor. Originally from South Africa, he lives in England. Together they also wrote Babylon's Ark: the Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo.

Lawrence Anthony (1950-2012) founded the Thula Thula wildlife reserve in Zululand, South Africa; launched The Lawrence Anthony Foundation; and received the UN's Earth Day award for his efforts to save the animals of the Baghdad Zoo. With Graham Spence, he is the author of Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo, The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, and The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World's Greatest Creatures.
GRAHAM SPENCE is a journalist and editor. Originally from South Africa, he lives in England. Together he and Lawrence Anthonywrote Babylon's Ark: the Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo.

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Elephant Whisperer 4.6 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 51 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an amzing book - - I had a very hard time putting it down. I would love to visit Thula Thula and see the original elepahnt herd as well as the newer herd members. I was absolutely heartbroken when I found out that Lawrence Anthony has passed away. It is great that his family is keeping Thula Thula running as a wildlife preserve. I highly recommend this book to any animal lover.
Vicky0 More than 1 year ago
I found out about this book through an email that was sent to me about the author and his unusual bond with elephants. Once I started reading it I couldn't put it down. It's a true story, well written and one I'll read over and over again. I loved it!
Gamma More than 1 year ago
Because of a short article in Reader's Digest mentioning what the elephants did after the author of this book passed away, I put the book on my Nook and I enjoyed reading it. There were laughs and tears and I intend to read the Baghdad Zoo book he wrote also. I also learned alot about conservation efforts in Africa and how they are trying to protect many animals killed for their tusks or horns, not for any other reason.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you love elephants, this book will amaze and inspire you. Mr. Anthony's personal story of his life with these unbelievable creatures is one that you will never forget. Best book I've read in many years!
LMerser More than 1 year ago
Wonderful true story, written with compassion, affection and appreciation for these amazing animals -- and actually all of African wildlife. When I started this book, I had intended to read only the Prologue, but was so quickly drawn into this incredible story that in no time I had read over 100 pages in one sitting! Bridging the gulf between two species always makes for a remarkable story, but this is also great storytelling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is very insightful into the lives of elephants. Their intelligence is remarkable and the way the author was above in interact with them was particularly good. The ups and downs of running a reserve is totally eye opening and the book makes one want to keep the reserves going for life.
JJW More than 1 year ago
If you're an animal lover you must read this! Wonderful book, inspiring, touching and whatever you thought you knew about elephants probably doesn't even come close to how much you will know after reading this. You will never look at them in the same way again.
LouisEagle More than 1 year ago
A magnificent book. Beautifully written. Touching, suspensful, sometimes disturbing and highly informative. You will never forget it.
Anonymous 4 months ago
This book was way more than I expected. There were times I was on the edge of my seat, times when I had to stop and get a tissue, and times I laughed out loud. Get it. Read it. It is marvelously written.
Anonymous 5 months ago
deeeee More than 1 year ago
Anthony lives on an African game preserve. This beautiful book tells of his successes and failures to re-introduce a family of wild elephants into their natural habitat. There are some cute/humorous moments and some tear inducing moments, but it is well written and fast paced. I rarely read non-fiction. I'm a contemporary romance girl, but as a lover of elephants, this one really appealed to me.
WJean More than 1 year ago
Excellent book - Read it for my book club. Already have the book discussion questions ready to discuss.
Mommo36 More than 1 year ago
What a gift Lawrence Anthony has given the world. Men and women alike will read with awe at the knowledge of Elephants and the patience L. Anthony had with them. Might we humans find that we can dot hat with more animals of the wild? It takes a compassion and gift of a lifetime to connect as he did. There are so many questions unanswered. Even with Mr Anthony's death, the elephants came to pay respects. We need to study and learn from them.
SandraMJ More than 1 year ago
Well written! This is a heart warming story of elephants, human politics and the game preserves of South Africa. I added Thula Thula to my bucket list
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just like Elephant Company, or maybe better, this is one of the bests lectures for elephant lovers!!!!!! You will love them even more!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
At first I was not sure I wanted to read a book about elephants. It was a very good book and I now want to go visit the reserve because it was fascinating. Learning about elephants the native tribes made it real. If you are looking for a different book to read this in one to pick up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Its full of compassionate stories of the south african bush. Lawerence anthony does an exceptiinal job of detailing moments with the herd of Thula Thula reserve and the incredible lessons learned from them and the others there. This book is wonderful to say the least!
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Best book ever one you cannot put down
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AMontanaGardener More than 1 year ago
It is always heart-warming to read of connections between a human being and other animals. Seldom do people exhibit the wisdom, patience and understanding exhibited by Lawrence Anthony during his life on his game reserve. It is a fascinating and intriguing account of his own personal journey into the minds and actions of African wildlife. Would that there were more people such as he!