Mark Shand

Portrait of an Accidental Conservationist

Even if you discount his outstanding conservation credentials, Mark Shand is by all accounts quite an extraordinary man. His life is the stuff of Hollywood movies, which is why apocryphal stories about him are indistinguishable from the factual ones.

He’s been expected to tell and re-tell the story of his life for years – and quite a story it is.

Something of a summary was delivered staccato-style during the course of our conversation and, even though I could tell that Shand has narrated it so many times that he’s almost mastered the script, it still came across as one of the greatest adventures of all times. I imagine he still marvels at it himself. Shand’s pedigree is so well-documented that it is almost superfluous to delve into it for the purpose of this article.

It was upon stumbling across some papers, including a photograph of an Asian elephant, belonging to his maternal grand-mother, Sonia Rosemary Cubitt, (née Keppel) that his interest in elephants began. He had already covered some pretty remote parts of the world by then, and acquired the reputation of a daredevil.

‘I grew up in the country, and loved nature and wildlife, but developed a passion for discovering far-flung countries from an early age, partly because my father [Major Bruce Shand] made me read Conrad and other great travel writers, and partly because I had a lot of curiosity.

‘I travelled to Australia at 16 and stopped in India on the way. I fell in love with the country as you might fall in love with a woman. Many of my friends were travellers.

‘I had to find a way of earning a living, so teamed up with a friend, Harry Fane, and started buying and selling art deco jewellery from the great jewellers such as Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, and Boucheron. We travelled a lot and had great fun, but when the business became serious, I had to go. I didn’t want to be a travelling salesman.’

Shand befriended a fellow adventurer, disenchanted war photographer Don McCullin, and decided to go look for disappearing tribes. The two made it to Indonesia– and then on to the Asmat region of South-Irian Jaya, Indonesia’s largest island, which Shand knew well, having had a house in Bali for 20 years.

They wanted to find out what had happened to Michael Rockefeller, who had disappeared there in the 1960s– he was ‘supposed to have been eaten’ by cannibals. Their quest resulted in a book, Skullduggery, and although Shand says the book didn’t do well commercially, the reviews differ: they are a testimony to his irreverent sense of humour and ability to captivate the reader’s attention. By the time he found his grand-mother’s transformative photograph, he had also sailed around the world, got shipwrecked, had had a lot of fun, learned a lot, but was ‘going nowhere and had no purpose’.

This purpose evolved almost on a whim, he says. Elephants got into his head, he did some research in libraries, and thought, ‘I’ll buy an elephant’. ‘Although I loved nature and wildlife, I had no conservation in me. The moment I met that elephant [the now famous Tara and subject of his best-selling book, Travels on my Elephant], my life changed.’

‘I had always wanted to do a book on India – it fascinated me – and I don’t believe in coincidences. These things happen for a purpose.

‘Elephants saved my life because, although I had travelled a lot, it was Tara that gave my life a purpose.’

I comment that his life is reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie. He laughs and says, ‘An Indiana Jones movie of disasters perhaps’. I remind him of Nicky Haslam’s description (‘crossing far-flung continents with not much more than a loincloth’) and ask what the reality is of organising these trips?

‘Travel in those early days was much more amateurish, borders were easy to cross, and although we had a jeep and supplies, we travelled light. The way I do it is to collect local people. Aditiya Patankar, who came with me on many of my expeditions, was an amazing guide, a great photographer and one of my closest friends. He was also curious like me, mad like me, and had the same sense of humour. Because India is so complex, he was a great anchor for me and gave me a better understanding of the country. Having him as a local fellow traveller was fantastic.’

Mark Shand

Can he speak Hindi?

‘I can speak elephant language’, jokes Shand, ‘I can command elephants. I can speak Indonesian because it’s relatively easy – no verbs to conjugate – and I pick up the Hindi whenever I go back to India.’

Shand also wrote River Dog in the 90s and a new publisher is updating Travels on my Elephant, to which he has added an afterword about the founding of the charity, Elephant Family, and about Tara. He is thinking of writing again but today it’s Elephant Family that takes most of his time.

He credits his ‘incredible team of young people who think out of the box’, for the charity’s success, but I suspect that it is the swashbuckling charm that draws the very impressive group of supporters and sponsors.

And, lest the cynical reader is tempted to credit his famous sibling, The Duchess of Cornwall, with being the major sponsorship pull, let us not forget that Mark Shand was already cutting an irresistible dash among many a spell-bound friend and supporter long before his sister married the Prince of Wales.

Because he is passionate; he is persuasive.

Elephant Family today is successful enough to make a difference. He says it started as an elephant welfare organisation but quickly realised that its mission had a unique urgency to it. Without any intervention, he says, the Asian elephant will be extinct in 30 years (the tiger in 10).

The solution is to identify and reclaim the traditional elephant corridors – the routes these largest living animals have always followed to find food and mate with other herds. A book, Right of Passage, documenting these corridors is being re-printed as the conservation effort gathers momentum. Elephants need the most amount of land and largest amount of food, something that puts them at odds and in direct conflict with the exploding population.

This conflict claims a human and an elephant life every day – as the animal is deprived of its natural habitat, it retaliates. Crops are destroyed and local farmers are left impoverished. The charity raises funds for acquiring land and building new houses for communities that need to be displaced in order to restore the elephant corridors. It buys land for reforestation and lobbies the local communities at home and abroad.

The impact of species extinction could have vast and profound consequences that are not just environmental. With the extinction of wildlife comes the extinction of rain forests, the erosion of resources, the loss of investments and ultimate famine. We are living in pre-apocalyptic times already – erratic weather patterns, frequent tsunamis, changing environment… The writing is on the wall, yet many choose to ignore it. If conscience doesn’t work, hopefully greed will prevail, hopes Shand, and vested corporate interests will support conservation projects before it’s too late.

Elephant Family is not just about proselytising, though. It is known as the ‘fun charity’ in that it organises big, inspired, available-to-all events – ‘a bit like the Olympics, except it’s free’.

The painted elephant sculptures dotting the London landscape (Elephant Parade in 2010 was the world’s largest open-air exhibition dedicated to saving the Asian elephant from extinction) raised awareness and funding, and created a jolly, festive atmosphere in the city. Many of Shand’s celebrity supporters pitched in and painted an elephant sculpture to be auctioned off.

The Fabergé Egg Hunt last Easter, organised together with Action for Children, was equally well-supported and successful. ‘The days of the grand dinner balls where you auction off esoteric lots for charity are over’, says Shand. ‘Now, you have to think of different ways of engaging the public; you have to think laterally.’

Nor is Elephant Family resting on its laurels. There are big plans afoot for next year, says Shand, and a NYC exhibition in 2014. Art is a big theme of these events – as a vehicle for including both collectors and conservationists. Its work is spreading beyond India, too – Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia are next on its horizon.


We talk some about the need to change people’s attitudes and perceptions and Shand tells me about a book he’s recently read – Zoo, by one of the giants of the thriller genre, James Patterson.

‘It is all about human/animal conflict’, says Shand, ‘and about the animals fighting back’. Patterson reaches a huge audience, of course, and that’s what making a difference is about.

‘People should be able to ask themselves the question, ‘How would it affect me if all the elephants died?’ and be aware of the answers.’

He cites the architect Frank Lloyd who, when asked ‘Do you believe in God?’, answered, ‘I believe in God, but I call Him “Nature”.’

‘Nature will strike back and wipe us all out if we are careless with it.’

Our conversation draws to a close as, sadly, Mark Shand has to go – to India. His youthful enthusiasm hasn’t deserted him and bursts through the scattered monologue. He says he still thinks he is 21. We think many a 21-year old would give an eyetooth to have his life and his zest for it.

Elephant Family

Since its launch in 2002, the organisation has invested £6 million in saving the endangered Asian elephant, by securing and restoring vital corridors of land, supporting local communities to reduce incidents of human-elephant conflict and improving the welfare of captive elephants. It works to highlight the plight of the Asian elephant, with UK-wide lobbying, campaigning and mobilising activity.