The Elephant Whisperer

This is a first-hand account from Lawrence Anthony, a conservationist who ran the Thula Thula game reserve in South Africa.

The stories about his relationship with a herd of traumatized elephants, and how he and they bonded and healed together, are the centerpiece of the book. You learn about the rich lives of elephants and how insightful, empathetic, and complicated they are. Of particular note are the many ways they interact–their stomach rumblings, trunks, and physical actions create an intricate network of short- and long-range communication. It’s really something.

But … (and this is a big but) … the book has problems that lie outside the words on the page. There’s a lot of white savior stuff and deep-seated colonialism layered into the chapters, and there’s no sense the author understands any of this is at play. In many ways, the book is an accidental satire that exposes the contextual issues surrounding the story.

I also have questions about how much of what’s in the book happened the way he says it happened. It’s tough to trust the hero when the hero is the writer. There are many times where the author comes off as Elephant Dundee: the unflappable guy with exceptional “bush knowledge” who saves the day when all others are helpless and lost.