Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mark Shand: An Elephant-Sized Life

Mark Shand in the London office of his charity, Elephant Family.
Mark Shand: An Elephant-Sized Life
by Delia von Neuschatz


“’Am I right in assuming that you want to buy an elephant?’ the voice from New Delhi shouted down the telephone to me in London. Even through the hiss and static of the long-distance connection I could detect the apprehension in the voice. ‘Yes,’ I shouted back.” So writes adventurer Mark Shand in his best-selling book, Travels on my Elephant, about the genesis of his famous, life-changing journey and eventual quest to save the Asian elephant from extinction. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Camilla Parker Bowles (now, Duchess of Cornwall) with her mother, the unflappable Hon. Rosalind Cubitt, in 1965. Shand recalls the time when he had gone to enormous trouble, walking and canoeing for 12 days across Indonesia, in order to call home: “I got through to the home number and said, ‘Hi, ma, it's me', and she said, ‘I can't talk to you now, I'm watching Coronation Street'."
When Shand was born, they threw away the mold, for they sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore (if they ever did). Grizzled thrill-seeker, glamorous jet-setter, fervent conservationist and younger brother of the Duchess of Cornwall, it is no exaggeration to say that Shand is a real-life Indiana Jones with a bit of James Bond glamour thrown in.

To date, Shand has been: pursued by cannibals in Indonesia; bedeviled by leeches, torrential downpours and Chinese politics while on a quest to discover Shangri-la; and shipwrecked in a hurricane in the South Pacific. "I think I really did worry my family then. Apparently it appeared in the papers back home that I was dead ... I lost everything in that, and I wasn't insured at all. I did go into a decline and think, my God, I've really f**ked my life up this time."

It wasn’t always thus, for Shand had spent the first part of his adult life conventionally enough – relatively speaking of course – traveling the globe, buying and selling antiques, vintage Cartier jewelry and objets d’art with his friend, Harry Fane, current owner of London’s Verdura showroom. It was when business took off that Shand, allergic to the prospect of wearing a suit every day, decided to keep trekking around Africa, India and Indonesia.

Pit stops on the comparatively safer, though still exotic shores of London and New York, earned the swashbuckler the reputation of being a bit of a playboy. The model, Marie Helvin, who is often referred to as “the face of the Seventies,” had, by her own admission, “lusted after him from the moment [they] met.” Although she turned down his proposal of marriage, she fondly describes Shand as "impulsive, emotional and open-hearted, with the most beautiful body I had ever seen."
Marie Helvin, Shand’s former girlfriend, has graced the cover of Vogue a record dozen times. Mark Shand and Caroline Kennedy.
In New York, Shand characteristically went full tilt, carousing until dawn with Caroline Kennedy at society parties, joining Andy Warhol’s crew and becoming a familiar face at Studio 54. “I think it's a time that will never be seen again,” he says. “It reminded me of the end of the Roman Empire. But it was the best possible form of wildness. The excess was extraordinary but there was an elegance to it. It was very chic. You got everybody from a bar waiter to Liza Minnelli joining in and they all looked fabulous. No one ever threw up in the street or fell over, like they seem to now."
Bianca Jagger with Mark Shand.
It would be another decade before Shand was to meet his first true love, however. And when he spotted her, he fell hard: “With one hind leg crossed over the other, she was leaning nonchalantly against a tree, the charms of her perfectly rounded posterior in full view, like a prostitute on a street corner. I knew then that I had to have her.” Little did he know that this encounter in India would change the course of his life forever for, weighing in at 6,000 pounds, Tara was unlike anyone he had ever met. She was nothing less than a magnificent elephant.
Shand with Tara. “Elephants are so bright; they’ve got the same emotions as us. I’ve known elephants with broken hearts, others with depression,” reveals Shand.
Attracted by the warmth of its people, Shand has had an abiding love for India for close to half a century. He has been enamored of the country ever since he traveled there at the age of 16 after having been expelled from school for smoking cannabis. His father, Major Bruce Shand, wanting to “put some spine in the little bugger” had sent him to Australia. "I stopped in India on the way and was supposed to stay for two days but, um, was there for considerably longer." It was India that ignited his passion for Asia and the Asian pachyderm.
Shand’s parents, Major Bruce Shand and Rosalind Cubitt, on their wedding day in 1946. A war hero who later became a wine merchant, Bruce Shand was also a talented writer, having penned a well-received memoir. The couple had two daughters and a son.
In 1988, Shand felt restless again and since the last time he had itchy feet, he ended up being hunted by Indonesian cannibals, it seemed that “a quiet jaunt across India on an elephant” would be just the thing to do. After some suspenseful negotiations and the payment of £4,000 to a village elder, this lovely lady, scrawny though she was, was all his.
Mark with Tara after her bath. A mahout or elephant driver taught Shand how to ride and care for Tara. As the embodiment of one of the most important Hindu gods, Ganesh, the elephant is a sacred animal in India. The popularity of Ganesh is understandable as he is the god of wisdom and knowledge and above all, he is the god who can remove all obstacles.
Thus began Shand’s epic 600-mile journey across India to the Sonepur Mela, the world’s oldest elephant market. His above-mentioned account of the trip, Travels on my Elephant, chronicles this voyage along packed highways and dusty back roads where communities have remained unchanged for millennia.

Shand did well to heed his father’s advice by keeping journals of his travels. He has recorded 20 years of adventure in four books, including Skulduggery, in which he narrates his hair-raising experiences in the Indonesian jungle. “We nearly got killed many times,” says Shand of himself and his companions.
It also registers Tara’s transformation from half-starved “beggar elephant” to “five tons of spoiled bliss” and star attraction under Shand’s loving ministrations.

What started out as a venturesome whim developed into a mission to save the Asian elephant from extinction. Shand’s charity, Elephant Family, which was formed in 2002 with help from financial backers Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and Bruce Weber, strives to re-establish vital migratory corridors for these noble creatures, whose forest habitat in under constant assault from man.

Working with local inhabitants and partner NGOs, Elephant Family currently funds 20 projects across Asia with the added aims of preventing human-elephant conflict and improving the welfare of elephants in general.

The spotlight in recent years has justifiably been on the African elephant which has been mercilessly butchered in order to satisfy the seemingly unquenchable Chinese thirst for ivory.

But, while there are 700,000 to 800,000 wild elephants left in Africa, only 35,000 or 40,000 remain in 13 countries across Asia. In the past 100 years, 90% of Asian elephants have disappeared, earning them an unwanted spot on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“India alone has lost 90% of its elephants and 95% of its forests in the last 50 or 60 years,” reports Shand. At this pace, the Asian elephant will be wiped out in 30 years.
Goldie Hawn is a patron of Elephant Family.
The reason for this decimation in their ranks is primarily due to rampant deforestation caused by the spread of human settlements, farming, mining and railways. In India for example, elephants are now confined to roaming in just 3.5% of their former range. The massive loss of habitat has pushed starving and stressed herds into settlements with dire consequences all around. This is because elephants have been using the same migratory routes to find food for millennia and “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 win in the end," says Shand. The long-term survival of the Asian elephant then, depends on securing these forest-linking corridors.
The destruction of their natural forest habitat has resulted in a new generation of displaced and angry pachyderms who regularly trample farms and villages. “We’ve basically changed the psyche of a peaceful herbivore into a killer,” says Shand. On average, one person and one elephant lose their lives every day somewhere in Asia. The historically harmonious relationship between man and elephant is breaking down.
Vast tracts of land being cleared in Sumatra.
The elephant corridor in Kerala. The passage is incongruously lined with stones which are carved with the names of benefactors such as Diane von Furstenberg and Ralph Lauren.
To that end, Elephant Family does something that is nothing short of extraordinary. It resettles entire communities that have sprung up along these migratory routes. Working in conjunction with the Wildlife Trust of India for example, Elephant Family was able to secure a vital 6 km (3.7 mile-long) corridor in the Kerala province of southwest India by relocating 300 settlers. To achieve this, it purchased the land on which the families (all 54 of them) had been living and built 15 new houses, a community center and three wells in an area off of the “beaten path.”

The effort, which included separate negotiations with each family, required a considerable outlay of time and resources. But, five years and $800,000 dollars later, there’s a happy community of farmers and a large number of happy elephants. The Kerala corridor is a crucial link in the Nilgiri Landscape, an area that is home to some 6,500 elephants, the largest population of Asian elephants in the world.
Sightings in the Kerala Corridor (l. to r.): Bengal Tiger; Tiger pug mark; Spotted Deer.
And significantly, it’s not just elephants that have returned to the area. Research has confirmed that no less than 19 species of large mammal including tigers and leopard cats have followed in their wake. “Save the elephants, and then you save the forest—and then you save yourself,” observes Shand.

All in all, 88 elephant corridors have been identified in India and Elephant Family is currently at work securing additional important forest tracts in the northeastern state of Assam. Shand estimates that the charity will need a treasure trove of $75 - $100 million to maintain all the routes.

In addition to saving their habitat, the foundation strives to further reduce elephant/human conflict and protect pachyderms through a variety of initiatives such as: the implementation of railway safety measures, the removal of lethal electrocution traps, the mounting of an awareness campaign about the forest-destroying quest for palm oil, the fight to end poaching and the campaign to stop the systematic smuggling of baby elephants.
Elephant Family is fighting to stop the routine removal of baby elephants from their families and forest homes. In Thailand, crowd-pleasing baby elephants are captured and subjected to horrific “domestication” procedures before ending up at elephant camps where tourists pose for pictures with them, unaware of the abuse.
Poaching for ivory in Asia is particularly catastrophic because, unlike their African cousins, only the males have tusks. When the males are killed, entire herds are left unable to reproduce. Compounding this problem is the fact that most of the large bull elephants in Asia were already killed in the last ivory crisis of the '70s and '80s.
The rising global demand for palm oil has led to the clearing of forests across Southeast Asia. The destruction of this forest habitat has not only forced distressed elephants into conflict with humans, but it has also pushed orangutans, tigers and rhinos closer to extinction. Palm oil is found in hundreds of foods from chocolate to margarine to cream cheese. To combat this problem, Elephant Family has campaigned for Clear Labels, Not Forests, calling for the labeling of specific vegetable oils on food products.
Of course, all these efforts require money and fund-raising is an on-going process. But, Mark Shand isn’t one to do things by halves and that goes double when it comes to raising money for his life’s mission. Elephant Family’s events are big, bold and beautiful. Luckily enough, New Yorkers will have the chance to see for themselves for there’s an upcoming public extravaganza planned for spring which promises to enchant all and sundry.
Shand with his sister, the Duchess of Cornwall, reviewing the elephants during London’s city-wide art exhibit, Elephant Parade. Designed and decorated by artists and celebrities, a herd of 260 fiberglass pachyderms were fanned out across London in the summer of 2010. They were auctioned off at a gala with the proceeds benefiting 20 wildlife charities.
Shand with Ruth Powys, the CEO of Elephant Family. Reflecting on his conservation efforts, Shand says in his gravelly baritone: "[One morning I woke up and thought], my God, the opportunities I've had, if I was a businessman I could have made a huge amount of money. The things I could have bought and sold, the people I've known ... But none of that really crossed my mind while I was young and travelling. I don't regret any of it. In the end I'd rather be a whore for elephants than a whore for business. They really are the best of causes.”
Ruth Powys in Elephant Family’s London headquarters. Shand squarely credits the charity’s lauded events to Powys’ “creativity and drive.”
Shand with Tara in recent years. Not having the heart to sell her at the Sonepur Mela, Shand placed her in an animal reserve in central India where the 52-year-old pachyderm lives in the lap of luxury. “She wakes up, eats, sleeps, swims, has a massage, eats and then goes back to bed – day in, day out … I would swap her life for mine any time,” writes Shand in Travels on my Elephant.
“Tara” is the Hindi word for “star.” “[She] is basically what everything comes from in Elephant Family. She gave me a purpose in life for which I can never repay her enough," says the 62-year-old philanthropist. “I did not save her. She saved me.” “Mark will fight until his last dying breath to preserve the Asian elephant,” asserts his nephew Ben Elliot. “He is engrossed to his very core.”
Two other very important women in Shand’s life are his daughter Ayesha (now 19) and ex-wife, Clio Goldsmith, daughter of environmentalist Teddy Goldsmith and first cousin to Jemima Khan.
Shand likes to compare himself to his friend, the daring writer and photographer, Peter Beard. “I’ve molded myself quite a bit on him. There’s not so many of us left,” he says with pride. Indeed, there aren’t. But Shand doesn’t need to emulate anyone. With his thrill-seeking nature, boundless curiosity and generosity of spirit, this trailblazer stands alone.

To find out how you can help Elephant Family, click here.
“So I haven’t really made any money, but at least I know I’ve lived.” He certainly has. This writer hopes that Shand’s next book will be his memoirs.