Lawrence Anthony was an international conservationist and bestselling author. He lived on the Thula Thula game reserve, spread over 5,000-acres in Zululand, South Africa. In 1999 Lawrence received a request from a local conservation group to rescue a herd of rogue elephants who had escaped many enclosures. They had become aggressive and dangerous and were about to be shot. Lawrence agreed to do what he could for the herd, as their survival depended on him.
He successfully brought the troubled herd to safety, but the elephants continued to stomp about angrily. They broke through the boundary fence, entering the adjacent game reserve. Once Lawrence got them back again, he knew his only hope of keeping the herd was to win their trust. Intuitively, he connected with the matriarch, Nana. Lawrence, ignoring her hostile behavior, whispered to her and empathized with her pain. Understanding her need to protect the herd, he pleaded with her not to leave again, as it was certain they would be shot. He assured Nana that they were safe at Tula Tula.
Slowly, the proud matriarch sensed his concern for the welfare of the herd. In response, she dropped her threatening defense and approached the boundary wire with her ears down. She then put her trunk through the fence and touched Lawrence, her way of saying she trusted him. The herd relaxed after that, and they accepted their new home at the reserve.
When Lawrence Anthony passed away on March 2nd, 2012, two elephant herds traveled slowly for 12 hours through the African bush to get to his house. When they arrived, the elephants held a vigil and mourned the loss of their friend. They stayed for 2 days before making their way back into the bush.
Lawrence Anthony, a man deeply in touch with his empathic nature, truly heard and felt the plight of Nana and the traumatized herd. His respectful understanding of what Nana was feeling brought about a lasting change in the relationship, a change so powerful it broke the bonds of time, space, and the apparent separation between animal and man. This is the power of empathy.
We are all born with the potential to be empathic. Like any other skill—riding a bike, learning to write, or playing the piano—empathy can be developed. Learn more about empathy here.