14 May 2014
Justine Hardy first met Mark Shand in India in 1997, just as his life was beginning to take on a new direction, one which would ultimately lead to the creation of the charity Elephant Family, dedicated to protecting Asian elephants and their habitat. Here, she pays tribute to the great British travel writer and conservationist, who tragically passed away suddenly on April 23, 2014 in New York.
‘When a star falls, the elephants cry' - it is part of an African expression.
One did fall, the adventurer, writer, and activist, Mark Shand, crashing out of his enormous aliveness on a New York sidewalk - very Mark, and not Mark at all. He was only ever going to go out with a bang, but it was not supposed to be this way, and certainly not this soon.
When very alive people die those around them are left utterly bereft. The very alive are not supposed to die. If they go, what chance do the rest of us have?
Mark leaves a gaping hole where there was once the vivid road show, moving around him and with him wherever he went. He arced across his own life, rushing through a brief brush with education, striding across rivers in spate, up the Himalayas, down Scottish glens, through drawing rooms and nightclubs, across any and every social boundary, jumping regularly into trouble along the way. He lit people up, and he also drove them mad, often with his wildness and blue language, sometimes with a staggering disdain. Yet there was always fierce loyalty to those he loved, even in his eternal pursuit of the next adventure. Mark did not do boredom. He did fun, and fun nearly did for him, until he met a girl, a very particular girl from beyond the serried ranks of beauties he had tumbled in and out of love with, one too huge to ignore, even for Mark, the hunter-gatherer of female loveliness.
She was leaning against a tree, one leg nonchalantly crossed, apparently oblivious to Mark's wiles. It was the moment he had been building towards, and she was the one. Tara was malnourished, weak (hence the leaning), and entirely unaware that she, the captive elephant, had just captured the wild man, raised in East Sussex, and now at her feet in Orissa by way of London, Bali, Borneo and just about every other destination beloved of those bred bachelor boys of the 70s. Of course Mark's personal and social life are the stuff of thousands of column inches, spun out across the too few decades of his life, but this is about Mark, the man who decided to save the Asian Elephant.
He mounted Tara, and rode over 700 miles, absorbing India as he went, and falling for Tara as he learnt of and from her. From her back he found his way onto the bestseller list, and into the world of a very particular kind of gentleman travel writer and adventurer. But it was more than this-beyond the success of Travels on My Elephant, the books before and those that came after. In Tara Mark found a cause to champion, and with this he surged forward, founding 'elephant family' in 2002 under the patronage of Ayesha Devi, Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, and Sir Evelyn Rothschild. It closed the door on much of his life to that point, as he quit his job of being a tousled yet chic jewellery salesman with Cartier, and took on the mission of protecting the 50,000 Asian elephants that were still thought to be alive.
It was as though in protecting them he dug deeper into learning of himself, alpha male protecting the apex species, understanding why they turned on the humans who were cutting into their natural habitat. In grasping the rage of elephant herds as they rampaged to protect their pathways and grazing grounds, Mark came home, and found his way into an animal language that made more sense to him than any other.
'These are the apex species,' he said once, raising his voice above that oddly soothing clatter of rain on a tin roof, one hot season afternoon in Delhi. 'They made the earliest tracks across the earth.' He stopped to light another cigarette. 'They have to be protected.'
And that is what Mark Shand did.