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Travels On My Elephant

Mark Shand

(London Times)

Tara's perfect bottom changed my life.

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. Suddenly, nothing else mattered and I realised with some surprise that I had fallen in love with a female Asian elephant.

Twenty-five years have passed since this meeting with an elephant whom I called Tara. It was a meeting that was to change my life - a life which, although filled with adventure and fun, had been going nowhere. Through Tara, I found a real purpose, more than that - a passion.

For the last 10 years I've been heading Elephant Family, one of the most successful elephant conservation charities in the world, and if it hadn't been for my love affair with Tara, God knows where I'd be.

But how did it happen? How did a posh, privileged, fat little boy with a fiendish temper end up one steamy, Indian monsoon night, deep in the jungles of Orissa [now Odisha], buying an elephant?

It was India that awoke a passion that will remain with me for the rest of my life. I believe you can fall in love with a country with the same passion that you can fall in love with a person or, in my case, an elephant. I felt immediately at home. I had lived there in another life, at another time.

It was that smell - the smell of incense, cow-dung, smoke, shit, sweat, burning fires, chamoli and champa blossoms, sandalwood, disinfectant, frying curry leaves, chilli, chai and moth balls. It is a fragrance so heady that I've always thought if a great parfumier could bottle it, the scent would be the most intoxicating in the world.

I had long wanted to write a book about India. So in 1988, I set off and came face to rump with Tara. She was young, between 25 and 30 years old, and although in poor condition, would in 14 days turn into a lovely riding elephant. She had all the attributes - a healthy pink tongue unblemished by black spots, brown kindly eyes . . . the right amount of toenails, 18, five each on the front feet, four on the back, strong and sturdy joints and a perfect arc to her back.

During our journey across India (750 miles in two months) it was through Tara that I got my first inkling of the dangers facing her wild Asian cousins. In rural Orissa I was approached by a local teacher who was convinced that Tara and I had been sent by the gods to catch a rogue elephant which had decimated his village's crops and already killed 11 people.

This was but one of many similar situations that I would encounter, exposing the growing imbalance in India between rural man and the natural life of the elephants. Both are blameless and both are victims of greed caused by a desire for timber and space, and the consequent massive deforestation. Today it is doubtful if as many as 40,000 elephants survive in the whole of Asia.

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(Mark Shand was the brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall)

I interviewed Mark Shand twice. The first time was during a genteel 'art weekend' thrown by the owners of Selfridges at a compound for the obscenely rich in Florida, where he turned up with elephants, little clothing and a torso full of tattoos.

The second was in the offices of his charity Elephant Family, in London, where he went through the tattoos like Jilly Cooper's Rupert Campbell-Black lasciviously ticking off his women.

'A serpent on my forearm which I got when I was working in the packing room of Sotheby's, a tiger on my shoulder I found after I woke up with some Algerian soldiers,' he growled, as well as 'some markings which were made by Dyaks in Borneo while I was fairly intoxicated on anything that was remotely available.'

He also had a scar from slashing his wrist to christen a model elephant created by the artist Peter Beard, one of 250 fibreglass elephants that he nailed down in 2010 'lying in vomit and urine on the streets of London' as part of a charity art show. He had a lot of tattoos, he said, but no regrets.

The Duchess of Cornwall's younger brother, Shand, who died last week at the age of 62 after falling over outside a revolving door in New York, was a rarity. He was more than a rarity: Shand was a toff people actually liked.

He was one of the last acceptable aristocrats in an age of unacceptable aristocrats, the boozy, dashing, improbably ripped son of an army major and descendant of Edward VII's mistress Alice Keppel.

Shand was a proper 1970s playboy, which is why I jumped at the chance to interview him: I knew he would always say something unacceptable. Not offensive or embarrassing, just hilarious.

Shand told me that after christening the elephant, he went back to the office and suggested everyone take part in a bonding exercise, because they had worked so hard and were all bonkers and he wanted to reward them.

'I suggested we might like to slash our wrists and mix our blood,' Shand explained. 'They were all up for it because none of us has Aids, so I slashed mine and said, 'Come on', but then they all chickened out.'

He seemed entirely baffled by their horror. But then, Shand had that very English problem of never quite knowing what was and what was not acceptable (this is why aristocrats invented manners. Shand, more than anyone, adhered to them).

He was too unconventional to like horses - 'horses are stupid' - and too stupid to get into Eton, so instead he picked up valuable life skills at Milton Abbey, where he inhaled glue and Dab-It-off before he was expelled at 16 for smoking marijuana. Shand later developed a taste for opium.

He said afterwards that his father, Major Bruce Shand, 'didn't mind me smoking dope, but wondered how I could be stupid enough to get caught'.

AS A child in Sussex he was certainly either dense or cack-handed enough to lacerate his own buttocks during an attempt to attack one of his sisters with a penknife.

Part of Shand's charm, though, was the fact that he did not get caught more. He spent most of his life with the bewildered expression of a public schoolboy who could not believe he had got away with so much.

Perhaps his most significant achievement, therefore, was that he never embarrassed his older sister, in spite of wild girlfriends, who included Bianca Jagger and Marie Helvin, and a wild lifestyle, which included cocaine and champagne.

He once described his days as an amateur international bobsleigher (yes) as 'up all night drinking champagne and doing drugs, and the next morning we'd be shitting ourselves'.

But then Shand was never cut out for anything as conventional as a hobby, let alone a job. On arrival in London, he was given strict instructions not to 'f*** around' by his father. He immediately ignored them, travelling around the Far East and snorting coke at Studio 54 in New York before returning to London, where he sold jewellery to 'the impressionable wives of oil and beef barons in South America and the southern states of the US', according to a profile in Tatler. He went on to work for Cartier.

I have never quite worked out what grown men do at Cartier - but the job allowed him to get on with his main purpose in life, which was appearing, tanned, at dinner parties, where women threw themselves at him as he reeled off anecdotes.

Shand really was the Crocodile Dundee of Fulham. His most notable conquests included Helvin, the model, who received a dozen white roses from him every Monday when they dated in the 1980s.

She found him 'impulsive, emotional and open-hearted, with the best body I'd ever seen', including a 'six pack of muscles that rippled down his torso' and skin that was 'honey brown', she gushed. I would often see him at parties, a rollie clamped in his mouth.

He was 'hot to trot', says the writer Lady Colin Campbell, but also 'a true gent. He never did anything sordid or tacky or unkind. He never deviated from the path of total rectitude.'

Shand was, however, not shy. He is said to have surprised her in the kitchen once, drunk, naked and fully aroused. 'That was 40 years ago,' she says now. 'And it wasn't in the kitchen.'

By 60, though, Shand's legendary body was falling apart. He told me he only had energy for one last trip with his friend, the photographer Don McCullin, who had travelled with him in the 1980s to New Guinea, where they were attacked by cannibals.

'Everything went wrong: people shooting us with bows and arrows, and we're always arguing, too,' he told me. 'On one trip I burst into his tent and found all the foie gras he'd got on the aeroplane.'

He suspected they would go somewhere illegal. Or Bognor Regis, but he had already had one hip replacement and had a charity to run.

Shand set up Elephant Family in 2002 to protect the Asian elephant.

He first became interested when he saw a picture of an elephant chasing a mahout in high heels, but considered buying one only after he was shipwrecked in the Pacific during a round-the-world yachting trip. He found Tara on a trip to east India.

Shand spent years trying to find her a mate - 'she can't just be banged by any old male' - but eventually he was defeated by the Indian authorities. He wrote a book about their adventures, called Travels with My Elephant. Another book, River Dog, chronicled a 600-mile journey with a mutt.

Perhaps the most affecting thing about Shand's death was that he died in the least spiritual place possible - or 'silly', as Campbell puts it - outside a club called the Diamond Horseshoe near Times Square.

His other friends died in car crashes or gored to death by buffaloes. Shand, obviously, was lighting a cigarette.

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