THE LAND BEFORE WE LIVED HERE
Before Africa was divided up into countries, provinces, towns and farms. Before the railways and highways and fences and border posts. Before the shopping malls and office blocks and suburbs, elephants moved freely around the continent.
As a migratory species they might travel as much as a hundred kilometres to find food or water, to get away from danger, or to find a more hospitable environment. Some of the colonial roads and railways were even built on the elephants' migratory paths, like the one that crosses the Drakensberg mountains.
Elephants in our province of KwaZulu-Natal, in the northeast of the country, might have travelled as far as Mozambique, allowing overpopulated herds to spread out into new terrain. These days elephants are confined to smaller pockets of wilderness as their habitat is destroyed or encroached by humans.
The more of us humans there are, and the more land we occupy, the more conflict there will be between us and elephants. Our own beautiful herd only came to us because they were breaking out of the game reserve they were living on to eat the neighbouring farmers' crops.
This situation, or a version of it, plays out all over the world. In India, the space for elephants is shrinking, and elephants are chased and even shot by farmers and villagers. We forget that these magnificent beasts were here long before us.
It's no secret that elephants are very large and they eat a lot—an elephant might eat as much as two hundred kilograms a day. That's a lot of trees and bush, so they need a good, big space. If confined to a small area, they can destroy their habitat.
When Lawrence and I bought Windy Ridge, it was 1,500 hectares. As 400 of those hectares were on the other side of the public road, they couldn't be part of the regulatory fenced area where we could keep the wildlife. Local people grazed their cattle on that land. We were left with a little sanctuary of just over 1,000 hectares, which we called Thula Thula. In Zulu, thula means quiet, and is often said in hushed tones. A mother might whisper, thula, thula to comfort a child to sleep. This was the peace and tranquillity we wanted to give animals and humans, in the land that had been hunted on for centuries.
In August 1999, we got our first seven elephants. They had the reputation of being 'problem' elephants and would have been culled if we had not taken them in. Lawrence knew that if we wanted to add to our herd, either through breeding or by rescuing more elephants, we would need more land. As well as the practical, common sense need for space, there's a regulatory one—the elephant management regulations of the Department of Environmental Affairs require us to have a certain number of hectares of land per elephant.
Lawrence was a man with great vision and big plans. His dream was to create a massive conservancy in Zululand, incorporating our land and other small farms and community land into one great big game park, stretching all the way to the far north of the province.
'Imagine it, Frankie,' he would say to me, gesturing over our property and beyond to the horizon, his face bright with excitement. 'All that beautiful bush, the animals. One big, safe, well-managed reserve. All the way up to Umfolozi.'
It was a grand idea, but we had no spare cash in those days. We were just starting out. No one knew us. We couldn't raise donations for land expansion. But Lawrence was undeterred. He spent hours and days trying to rally people in support of his vision. There were endless exhausting meetings with community leaders. His commitment to his dream, and to the welfare of animals, never wavered.
He had some success. In 2008, ten years after we bought Thula Thula, we expanded into 1,000 hectares of land which belonged to the National Parks Board but had been allocated for community use. This area, Fundimvelo, had no water, so it really wasn't suitable for cattle. What little wildlife there was on the community land struggled to survive, and animals often came through or over the fence to find water and better grassland at Thula Thula.
Lawrence approached the amakhosi, the local traditional leaders. They are largely symbolic figureheads, most of whom have little political power, but they play an important role in the lives of rural people, negotiating, advising and helping to resolve disputes. Our relationships with the amakhosi are extremely important to us, and over the years we have developed great trust and mutual respect.
Lawrence's proposal was to create a joint conservation project on Fundimvelo. We would run it as part of Thula Thula and develop its infrastructure. They didn't hesitate. We dropped the fence between the two properties. Our beautiful family of elephants had more space to roam, and the animals on the community land had access to our water and grasslands.
Lawrence and Vusi and the team built a large dam on what had been community land. It was a favourite spot for our elephants, and of course our hippo family. After Lawrence died in 2012, we named the dam Mkhulu Dam, in memory of him. Mkhulu is the Zulu word for grandfather, and was our staff's affectionate name for Lawrence. His ashes were scattered at that beautiful, tranquil place.