Mark Roland Shand – Elephant Man, Writer And Conservationist
Photo Courtesy: Elephant Family/Sanctuary Asia.
Mark Shand loved life and elephants in equal measure. His untimely demise has left a gaping hole in the hearts of those who knew and loved him. Bittu Sahgal remembers the British writer, adventurer and bon vivant, whose name was synonymous with the pachyderms he protected to the day he took his last breath.
This handsome, driven, wildlife hero spent his entire life in defence of the wild creatures he loved. Brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, he was also Chairman of Elephant Family, a wildlife trust he co-founded along with Lord Robin Russell, Nicholas Claxton, Caroline Casey and Dugal Muller.
Writing about Mark like he was never going to walk through the door again is downright unreal. To a person, anyone who truly knew him would agree: “Mark was a pure heart.” He had a family in virtually every heart he touched. He was part of Sanctuary’s soul.
I first met Mark decades ago in London with Nicholas Claxton, documentary film maker, and Teddy Goldsmith, legendary editor of The Ecologist. Inside of five minutes this affable, warm human had me shaking my head in wonder trying to figure out what quirk of convergent experience gifted us such a conjoint sense of wonder, purpose, fear (for the natural world) and our visceral love of elephants, tigers, whisky and forest silences.
Numbed on hearing he had died, Nicholas Claxton said wistfully: “Mark was a complete one off who lived life to the full. His can do philosophy, tireless passion and commitment to the plight of the Asian elephant were qualities I greatly admired. He was one of my closest and dearest friends and I will miss him deeply.”
Ranjit Barthakur of the Balipara Foundation and more than a mere friend to Mark said nothing for more than a stunned moment when I called him late at night and said: “Mark has gone. He died three hours ago.” Then, after a hoarse “Are you sure? When? How?” we both began coming to terms with the finality of it all.
Mark travelled over 1,000 km. across India on his elephant, Tara, (as a mahout, not a passenger!), swum in crocodile-populated rivers, rafted down India’s Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, was threatened by shadowy ivory traders and walked in tiger country without a care in the world. It seems grossly unfair therefore that he should be taken from us on account of an accidental fall and head injury outside the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York of what the Chief Medical Examiner described as a "blunt-impact head trauma with skull fracture and subdural haematoma." He had been dealing with high blood pressure and probably blacked out on account of medicine-related postural hypotension. He had successfully raised just under two million U.S. dollars for Elephant Family only moments before he died.
Born to Major Bruce Shand and Rosalind Cubitt, he studied at Milton Abbey in Dorset, U.K. and found himself promptly expelled on account of his love for cannabis, which he nevertheless continued to worship through his life on his many sojourns to India.
India flowed in his veins. Here he would happily ditch his black tie and dinner jacket for a lungi and sit back in some distant jungle puffing charas (hashish, cannabis) and watch the night fall over his precious wild elephants. On his playboy image and ability to cut out the black tie bunch that financed his charities, he once famously said: "In the end I'd rather be a whore for elephants than a whore for business."
In one of his last interviews to Olivia Parker of The Telegraph, his dismay at a changing India, mirrored the dismay many of us feel: “I love visiting, but India itself I can’t recognise any more. The money there is unbelievable, and not in a good way. People spend $30 million on weddings and you see sons of tycoons bribing the police to keep the roads clear so they can race their Ferraris. The corruption is unbelievable.”
Photo: Yogeshwar Krishna.
As we come to terms with his passing, our thoughts are with his family that will surely find it hard to adjust to life without the lovable, adventurous, irreverent Mark Shand.
A promise then to Mark and to Elephant Family: “Sanctuary is a part and parcel of Mark’s on-going mission. Keep us central to your work for, unknown to all, Mark sits quietly in our hearts and monitors our every beat. And we will work for the elephants that were Mark’s compass.”
|The Quintessential Mark Shand (Courtesy Olivia Parker/The Telegraph)|
1. Herbal tea or stiff drink?
I only drink blended whiskey in a tall glass with lots of ice and water.
2. Your earliest memory?
I had an imaginary friend, a small, wizened, elf-like creature with an old top hat and tails. My parents had to lay an extra place at lunch for him and everyone thought I was slightly demented.
3. If you could be born in another age, when would it be?
The 19th century, the great time of exploration. Richard Burton is one of my heroes.
4. Oddest thing you’ve even eaten?
I’ve eaten most things, but it would probably be poisonous beetles.
5. Favourite book?
I have three: Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby and Rodney Stone by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Five favourite things:
1. A gold Ganesh from my ex-wife, which I wear around my neck. If I lost that I would go mad.
2. A box that my daughter painted.
3. My collection of 19th and 20th-century Ganesh wooden masks.
4. A hair from Tara’s tail.
5. My father’s letters to me, which always used to start: “I write this in sorrow rather than anger.”
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 3, June 2014.