In 2009, a traumatised elephant herd abruptly arrived at Thula Thula Game Reserve in Zululand after their matriarch had been shot. The late conservationist, Lawrence Anthony, together with his wife and business partner Francoise Malby-Anthony, were still laying down the bedrock of the reserve when the call came in… “Take these elephants or they will be shot!”

Lawrence, together with David Bozas, who was then a teenager, spent the next few weeks trying to stop the elephants from breaking out through the fence as they had done on the day that they arrived. It was clear from the moment of their arrival that Nana, the oldest in the herd, had assumed the role of matriarch. Lawrence believed, therefore, that if he could make a real connection with Nana then the rest of the herd would be able to trust people again and make Thula Thula their home. After countless hours of Lawrence and David talking and singing to them, the herd was finally won over.

As it turned out later, Nana wasn’t the matriarch at all, her mother was. Only days before their arrival to Lawrence’s game reserve Nana’s mother had been shot, in front of the entire family, when she tried in vain to lead them away from the approaching helicopters that were utilized to capture them.

Night after night this continued with Nana getting ready to break yet another fence and Lawrence standing on the other side pleading with her. Somehow to everyone’s surprise Lawrence’s tactic seemed to work and over time Nana began to calm down. Soon she began to stop running away. Nana and her herd eventually calmed down and stopped trying to break through the fences that surrounded them. They had hundreds of acres to roam and they explored every inch of their new home finally settling down resigned to the fact that this was their new home and they were safe…finally. Lawrence had decided to allow the elephants to be as free of human contact as possible. He felt that they have had enough, they deserved to be wild again.

Tragically, Lawrence passed away in 2012, and 16 years later the herd that was once 7, was 29. Nana was now a proud grandmother of half a dozen kids aged between 1 and 13, and her graceful presence is always a favourite with guests. Every year on 4th March, around the anniversary of Lawrence’s death, Nana leads the herd up to the main house where Lawrence lived so that the family can pay their respects to the man that gave them a new life.

Nana is now approximately 57 years old and is the “peacemaker” at Thula Thula where she is always the one who remains calm and patient – be it when stopping Mabula from chasing the safari vehicles or when she kindly but firmly breaks up the playfights between the teenage boys. As a result, all the rangers always feel safe viewing the herd when Nana is around!

Text: Jamie Joseph from Saving the Wild
Photo credit: ‘The Elephant Whisperer’ by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence