Mark Shand, British conservationist and adventurer, fell in love with elephants as a teenage rebel more than 40 years ago. He had just been expelled from his Dorset public school for smoking cannabis, and his father, Major Bruce Shand, decided that what Mark needed was a bit of backbone. “I think he thought, let’s put some spine in the little bugger and send him off to Australia,” says Shand.
“I stopped in India on the way and was supposed to stay for two days but, um, was there for considerably longer.” Shand went off the radar, a habit he has never really grown out of — and in India began a lifelong love affair with the noble Asian elephant.
With the help of a Maratha nobleman, Mark Shand bought an elephant named Tara and rode her over six hundred miles across India to the Sonepur Mela, the world’s oldest elephant market. From Bhim, a drink-racked mahout, Shand learned to ride and care for her. From his friend Aditya Patankar he learned the Indian ways. And with Tara, his new companion, he fell in love. With her sweet personality and a penchant for mischief, such as shoplifting fruit from vendors’ stalls and lifting prostitutes’ saris, she is the real star of the trip.
Shand’s bestselling book Travels on my Elephant is the story of their epic journey across India, from packed highways to dusty back roads where communities have remained unchanged for millennia and still worship the elephant God Ganesh. The group attends village festivals, receives the hospitality of princes and policemen, and Shand becomes so enamored of Tara that they share a slug of whisky and mingle their tears at his leave-taking. It is a memorable, touching account of Tara’s transformation from scrawny beggar elephant to star attraction.
It was Tara who really taught him about elephants — about their “emotions and temper and intelligence” — and confirmed his “absolute love” for them, he says.
Mark and four other conservationists, through their individual experiences, learned that these majestic and beautiful animals were teetering on the brink of extinction and that the conservation-conscious western world seemed indifferent to their impending tragedy. Something had to be done and the Elephant Family charity was born.
“The challenge in India lies in maintaining the elephants’ migratory routes through ever-shrinking forests. “India has lost 95 per cent of its forestry in the past 50 or 60 years,” says Shand. “Within what’s left of it, people have mapped 80 migratory routes, or corridors, which elephants use to find food. They might only be a quarter of a kilometre wide, but the elephants have been using them for thousands of years and they won’t veer off them.
“That means if there’s human habitation in the way, they’ll just go through it. But that’s a battle — between humans and elephants — that of course the animals won’t in the end win.”
Shand’s charity is working with others in India to clear some of these corridors.
Shand maintains that human encroachment on elephant territory across Asia is fundamentally changing the character and personality of the giant beasts. “I’ve been documenting it for about 15 years and it’s extraordinary to see how we’ve turned what’s essentially a peaceful herbivore into a very cunning animal that’s almost at war with humans.”
Tara in the meantime is kept in an animal reserve in central India in the lap of luxury as the best looked-after elephant Mark has ever known!