Prince Charles with his brother-in-law Mark Shand (left) during a visit to the Vazhachal Forest Range, Kerala, in November last year
London, April 25: The beleaguered Indian elephant has lost probably its most loyal friend with the death in New York from an accidental and freak head injury of Mark Shand, 62, younger brother of the Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Charles’s brother-in-law.
His love affair with Indian elephants began in 1988 when he bought a female, Tara, in Bhubaneswar, rode her 600 miles (965.6km) to the Sonepur mela and wrote a best-selling book, Travels On My Elephant.
It is said that from Bhim, “a drink-racked mahout”, Shand learned to ride and care for Tara. From a friend, Aditya Patankar, he learned “Indian ways”. The book is also an account of Tara’s recovery from a “scrawny beggar elephant” to becoming a creature who could return her master’s love.
Another book, Queen Of The Elephants, won the 1996 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Prix Litteraire d’Amis and was also made into a BBC documentary. It told of the life of the first female mahout in recent times — Parbati Barua of Kaziranga.
For Elephant Family, a charity he set up in 2000 to help the gentle giants of the receding forests in Assam and elsewhere, he raised £6 million, including £950,000 at a New York fundraiser on the very night that he died.
Tuesday night was the culmination of a spring fundraising campaign for Elephant Family that featured the Big Egg Hunt, sponsored by Fabergé. The hunt involved 200 giant eggs hidden around New York which were decorated by famous artists and designers and sold at an auction.
An egg Shand commissioned for the event was of Humpty Dumpty, and was created by Prince Charles’s Drawing School and signed by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. The work was called “The Royal Egg — Humpty Dumpty, 2014”.
The auction was followed by an afterparty at the Diamond Horseshoe nightclub at the Paramount Hotel in West 46th Street, close to Times Square.
It was after going for a last drink with a relative at the Rose Bar in the Gramercy Park Hotel that he slipped and fell backwards at about 2.30am, striking his head as he tried to re-enter through a revolving door, according to New York police. An ambulance was called at 3am and Shand was taken to Bellevue Hospital where he died.
Shand’s obituary notices in British newspapers focused on his colourful love life and that in his younger days he played up the image of the loveable rogue. He was linked with the likes of Marie Helvin, Bianca Jagger, Jackie Onassis’s sister Lee Radziwill and even Jackie’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy.
He proposed to Helvin. She turned him down but described him as “impulsive, emotional and open-hearted, with the most beautiful body I had ever seen”.
With Shand at the end was a woman who said she was his on-off girlfriend, Ruth Powys, 36, chief executive of Elephant Family.
Describing his final moments, she said: “I had my hand on his heart — he was surrounded by his elephant family.”
But it would be fair to say his heart belonged to India and the Indian elephant, less and less required for logging and stressed by vanishing forests.
For his daughter from a marriage lasting 19 years to Clio Goldsmith, a French-born former actress and a cousin of Jemima Khan, he had chosen an Indian name — Ayesha.
The Indian business couple who knew him the best, Cyrus and Priya Vandrevala, who were the most generous donors to Elephant Family, said from New York: “Mark was extraordinarily passionate about his work at Elephant Family. He lived his life to the fullest. We will miss him.”
In tweets, the modern way of expressing condolences, Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician, said: “Shocked & saddened to learn of the death of one of my closest English friends, Mark Shand, in New York where he was raising funds 4 charity.”
From his ex-wife, Jemima, there was also a tweet: “RIP Mark Shand: Best man, godfather to my son & my cousin’s ex.”
Camilla’s marriage to Prince Charles lifted Shand’s status but even before that there was admiration among the British for his adventurous and free-spirited life in India. Shand’s concern for the elephant appeared genuine and his relationship with Tara intuitive and deep.
Maybe, in a sense, Shand did “go native”. Actress Joanna Lumley once said she believed that Shand “may have the blood of wild animals in his veins; his awareness of their character and habits is preternatural”.
No doubt, Elephant Family will continue to do its best for the Indian elephant but the charity is now without the man who set it up and remained its chairperson and used his connections to raise funds for the cause.
Ian Walkden, the chief executive of Elephant Family, said: “We have lost the head of our family. Mark Shand was a true force for conservation. He was both a legend and an inspiration to us and above all our great friend. We will miss him always.”
Prince Charles and Camilla heard the news at their Birkhall home in Scotland.
A Clarence House spokesperson said: “The Duchess, the Prince of Wales and all her family members are utterly devastated by this sudden and tragic loss. Mark Shand was a man of extraordinary vitality, a tireless campaigner and conservationist whose incredible work through Elephant Family and beyond remained his focus right up until his death.”
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who are on their way back from a 19-day tour of New Zealand and Australia, also spoke of their sadness and passed on their sympathies to Camilla.
Born on June 28, 1951, Shand was the son of Major Bruce Shand and his wife the Hon Rosalind Cubitt. His sisters are the Duchess of Cornwall and Annabel Elliot.
He was expelled from Milton Abbey School at 14 for smoking cannabis and sent to Australia by his father to learn some life lessons, but stopped on an extended stay in India on his way where he was given his first taste of the country with which he would fall in love.
Camilla’s son, Tom Parker Bowles, from her first marriage, expressed thanks for the tributes paid to his “late, great” uncle: “A massive thank you for everyone’s lovely words about our late, great uncle Mark Shand. Deeply appreciated.”
Ben Elliot, another of Shand’s nephews, also paid a moving tribute: “RIP my hero and uncle Mark Shand. We loved him so much. What a life,” he wrote on Twitter, posting a photo of his baby son on Shand’s shoulders.
He added: “Mark did so much for the plight of the Asian elephant. Elephants never forget. Nor will we.”