Wild life: Françoise Malby-Anthony

The co-founder of South Africa’s Thula Thula game reserve on the challenges of being a woman in conservation and not giving up

People 22 Oct 2019

Françoise Malby-Anthony with Frankie, the current matriarch of the elephant herd at Thula Thula. Photo by Kim McLeod
Françoise Malby-Anthony was this year awarded a Trophée de Francais de l'Etranger in recognition of her conservation work at Thula Thula
Two of the elephants rescued by Thula Thula

Françoise Malby-Anthony is the co-founder, owner and managing director of South Africa’s Thula Thula game reserve. She established the reserve with her late husband Lawrence Anthony near Richards Bay in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa in 1999. Lawrence Anthony rose to fame following the publication of The Elephant Whisperer, an account of how he, Françoise, and the team at Thula Thula rescued a traumatised and unruly herd of elephants from being shot and moved them across South Africa to a new life at Thula Thula. Lawrence subsequently formed an incredible bond with the pack, especially the matriarch Nana who still lives with her herd at Thula Thula.

Hailing from France and with no prior experience in conservation before working with Lawrence at Thula Thula, Françoise was thrown into the challenge of leading the game reserve when Anthony died suddenly in 2012. She is, as she puts it, ‘a foreigner, a woman, a blonde’, and had little experience in conservation – all facts that made her journey to successfully leading the game reserve even more difficult.

Nana and family at Thula Thula
Nana and family at Thula Thula

‘I believe in never stopping learning, so I started by surrounding myself with the right people, who knew about the bush and conservation – I listened to them and never made decisions on my own,’ she says. ‘When you don’t have the knowledge, you have to use common sense, instinct and intuition and listen to people close to you who have the same passion and vision as you. I developed a much better understanding of conservation and I also learned that every time there is a difficulty, or a problem it’s a good thing as it opens the road to new hopes and opportunities.’

‘I never thought seven years ago we’d be where we are now: busy expanding, having created a wildlife rehabilitation centre, created a volunteers camp and celebrating the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the elephant herd,’ she says. ‘Always believe in the impossible.’

In July 2018 Thula Thula opened its first volunteer camp, welcoming visitors from across the world to spend around two weeks at the reserve learning how to look after the bush and its inhabitants. ‘It’s a dream come true, something I really wanted to do, because I believe education is the key to conservation,’ Françoise says. ‘It’s extremely important that people reconnect with nature.’ Thula Thula takes on a maximum of eight people from around the world at a time, including one from the local community who learns for free. The volunteer team learns the theory and practice of looking after a game reserve, including wildlife monitoring education, working with local communities and anti-poaching practice from Thula Thula’s most experienced rangers.

In 2014 Françoise established an orphanage for abandoned baby rhinos that also ended up looking after a number of other animals in need, including a baby hippo with an unusual fear of water. Tragically, the centre was targeted in February 2017 by gunmen who killed two baby rhinos for the tiny amount of horn they could get from their bodies and closed soon after. ‘We reopened immediately after the closure because of the tragedy,’ Françoise says, ‘Thula Thula took over the management as we were not the managers of the previous operation unfortunately. It’s always a story of not giving up.’ The new Fundimvelo Thula Thula Wildlife Rehabilitation centre opened in May 2017 with the aim of rescuing and releasing back into the wild any kind of animal needing help, including orphans, the wounded and those being held in captivity. The ambitions for the rehabilitation centre don’t stop there, however. Françoise looks thrilled when discussing future plans to concentrate on rescuing wild cats of any size, the permit for which Thula Thula is waiting eagerly.

An Elephant In My Kitchen, Françoise Malby-Anthony's best-selling book
An Elephant In My Kitchen, Françoise Malby-Anthony’s best-selling book

Rescued wild cats aren’t the only felines Françoise wants to see at Thula Thula. One of her other ambitions is to introduce lions and cheetahs to the reserve, as Thula Thula isn’t currently home to any big cats. The management plan for the cheetahs is complete, the fence has been rebuilt to accomodate the introduction of the cats and Thula Thula is waiting for the permit so that the reserve’s conservation efforts can continue. ‘For the lions we’ll have to wait a year or two until after the expansion,’ Françoise says. ‘I’d like to create a perfect ecosystem, but none of our animals have even seen a lion before, so it’s going to have to be really well thought out,’ she says.

The expansion Françoise talks about is the ambition to add 3,500 hectares of community land, which currently belongs to local tribal leaders, or Amakhosi, to the existing 4,500 hectares. Françoise has a business plan in place and is working closely with the Amakhosi to make sure it’s a mutually beneficial expansion. ‘We’re hoping to finalise it all by the end of this year. We are all very excited at Thula Thula,’ she says. The expansion will give Thula Thula the opportunity to increase the elephant population and see more babies at the reserve. Françoise melts as she talks about the potential of more elephant babies. ‘They are the cutest things,’ she says, ‘even when you’ve got one in your kitchen.’

The elephant she’s talking about is Tom, the star of her book, An Elephant in My Kitchen, published last year. Little Tom was found wandering lost in Françoise’s garden, separated from his herd. ‘This is completely out of the ordinary when you understand the family structure of elephants and how careful they are with their babies… It didn’t make sense!’ The park rangers eventually found the herd and reunited Tom with his mother, but in the meantime Françoise had to protect the elephant by taking it into her home. ‘It’s very hard to push a 120kg elephant into your kitchen, I can tell you,’ Françoise recalls, ‘but it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my whole life!’

The tented camp at Thula Thula
The tented camp at Thula Thula

Expanding the rhino population is also a constant aim of Françoise and her team and they recently adopted two rhino females, Mona and Lisa, with a view to possibly mating one with Thabo, the male of the existing pair of rhinos at Thula Thula. ‘It’s my dream to be a rhino grandma,’ Françoise says.

Asked whether she ever thought of leaving Thula Thula to go back to Paris, Françoise says, ‘sometimes there were terrible moments where I wanted to fly to the South Pole or the North Pole, not even go back to Paris! Just run away from everything because I thought I’d never make it, but you have to face the adversity and the more you do, the more you feel confident that you can overcome all difficulties and challenges. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’

In recognition of her pioneering conservation work, this year Françoise was awarded a Trophée de Francais de l’Etranger, an award given to French nationals who have made a positive impact through their work abroad. ‘It felt amazing,’ she says, ‘and all the team is extremely proud of it as well. Nobody succeeds on their own, there are always people around you that help you, that make it happen.’

Françoise’s 60-strong team are clearly a great source of strength to her, but one perhaps less expected support through it all has been the herd of elephants that she and Lawrence rescued at the very start of Thula Thula. The herd famously returned to the main house on the occasion of Lawrence’s death and each year on the anniversary of the date for many years following. ‘The elephants coming to see me at the main house I take as huge encouragement. They used to come back and stand in front of me on a regular basis, telling me “you’re not on your own”,’ Françoise says. ‘It gave me the strength to carry on.’

An Elephant In My Kitchen by Françoise Malby-Anthony with Katja Willemsen, was published in 2018 by Sidgwick Jackson