Mark Shand: Elephant Man
In the somewhat stuffy world of the royals, Mark Shand was a hidden gem, a man of a thousand contradictions – which makes his tragic death in New York at the age of 62 so sad. He was a travel writer and conservationist as well as being brother to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. We met a few years ago when he was in Edinburgh to launch Jungle City, a collection of animal sculptures which were displayed around the capital during the Fringe to raise money and awareness for the conservation of endangered species. Companies, charities and private individuals could sponsor an animal for £4,000 then the exhibits were auctioned off in aid of Mark’s charity, Elephant Family.
His passion for the Asian elephant (rather than the more traditional royal obsession with horses and corgis) began when he met Tara, one of four begging elephants, in Orissa, on India’s east coast.
He said, “In India, people own elephants, often a lot of them, and the animals work during what they call the “marriage season”, from September to March. Then, disreputable people blackmail farmers by telling them the elephants will eat their crops. Sadly, in India, there is always a way to make money.” When Mark first saw Tara, he said he fell in love with her. His description was somewhat graphic, “Maybe it was her eyes- dark, gentle, brown pools of kindness … or, maybe, it was the way she stretched out her trunk and, with the utmost delicacy, explored my pockets searching for hidden goodies, or the way she squeaked with excitement, flapping her huge ears, when I tentatively offered her a banana for the first time.” But poor Tara was in a pitiful condition, scrawny and starved, her ribcage clearly visible and her skin hanging in folds. She looked exactly what she was, a beggar – a beggar with a pronounced limp due to a deep-rooted ulcer caused by metal-spiked shackles used to hobble her.
Known affectionately as the Elephant Man, Mark would visit Tara regularly at her home in Kipling Camp in Madhya Pradesh, “Tara is spoilt,” he would tell people, “She eats about 250 kilos of roughage a day as well as various treats such as chapatis.” Mark also revealed that elephants love alcohol, “They can smell it a mile away. It could be the sugar.”
His love of elephants was all consuming. In the past 100 years, the elephant population has shrunk by a massive 90 per cent. Once there were 250,000 elephants roaming Asia now there are only about 25,000 left. In the early Eighties, Mark undertook a 1,000-kilometre journey through India on Tara’s back; a story told in his bestselling book, Travels on my Elephant, which he undertook with photographer and friend, Aditya Patankar. He also wrote Queen of the Elephants, the account of a 300 mile trek across East Benghal and Assam on the back of an elephant, with Parbati Barua, one of India’s greatest elephant experts and the only female mahout (elephant driver) in the world. Eventually, in 2002, Mark became so enamoured with his subject, he gave up a lucrative business selling Cartier jewellery to write books and found The Elephant Family – the sole charitable organisation dedicated to Asian elephants.
Camilla’s brother believed that if these elephants were not preserved, they would become extinct within 30 years; tigers within six years. “I am passionate about this. The Elephant Parade in London last summer made £4million, double our target. I want Edinburgh’s Jungle City to be the biggest possible success.” Marks revealed the disturbing fact that, every single day, an elephant kills a human being and a human kills an elephant. He said: “It is our fault because we humans have driven them away from their natural habitat. To cut the risk of human-elephant conflict and casualties, we are securing habitat all over Asia and purchasing corridors of land for elephants and helping local people relocate. We do this with the overwhelming support of the communities – some of whom have been plagued for years by bewildered, hungry elephants. These people have often lost crops, property – even loved ones – in human-elephant conflict.
“We make sure indigenous communities are settled safely elsewhere with good-quality housing and agricultural land. Then, we work with the State Wildlife Department to grant the corridors protected status.” I remember at that point Mark smiled and added: “Only then can we elephant-lovers breathe a sigh of relief.”
Born and brought up in a beautiful country house in Plumpton, on the Sussex Downs, Mark lived happily as younger brother to sisters, Camilla and Annabel: “We had the best upbringing in the world and I have always loved country life. I still think of that house as home, even now, long after I left.” Despite his royal connections, Mark was an adventurer at heart. He once rode a horse through the Andes then completed the London to Sydney motor race and was shipwrecked in the Western Pacific while attempting to sail round the world. He has worked with Goldie Hawn and Julia Roberts on documentaries about life in the wild. He has also written and travelled with internationally renowned photo journalist Don McCullin.
When we met, Mark was preparing to attend the wedding of Prince William and Kate with his 16-year-old daughter, Ayesha who had just told him she didn’t want any elephants, fluffy or otherwise, in her bedroom. No doubt she was duly taken to tusk.