Mark Shand's campaign to save the Asian elephant spread his renown far beyond the privileged circles he moved in.
People who did not care about royalty or celebrities sat up and took notice when this seasoned traveller, with his lived-in face and confident charm, spoke with passion about the extinction threat he feared, the dwindling of India’s forests, and the migration corridors the mighty animals needed.
He was a member of the Royal Geographical Society, Honorary Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam, author of several travel books, and faithful and frequent visitor to the Kipling Camp in Madhya Pradesh, India, where the first elephant to inspire him, Tara, still lives. He once rode Tara 600 miles across India to Sonepur Mela, said to be the world’s oldest elephant market.
In life as well as death his fate was determined by sharp turns of fortune. The man who habitually wore strands of sacred red thread around his wrist, as Hindus do, might never have come across either India or Tara had his stern ex-soldier father not sent him packing to Australia in 1969 after his school caught him smoking cannabis and expelled him. A brief stop-over in India turned to a much longer stay and gave rise to a lifelong devotion.
Shand had all the best instincts of the great British adventurers who forged paths up mountains and along rivers of the subcontinent. Like them he was fascinated by the limits of nature, where rivers began and territories ended.
His first book, Skulduggery (1987), extended, as the British imperial experience did, farther east, to what is now Indonesia, and was illustrated by his friend the war photographer Don McCullin. Travels with My Elephant won the British Book Awards travel writer prize for 1992, and in 1996 Queen of the Elephants, about a female mahout, or elephant guide, won the French Prix Litteraire d’Amis and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. In 2002 he published River Dog: A journey down the Brahmaputra.
He also made documentaries for the BBC and the National Geographic channel, and was credited by the film director Harry Marshall, who directed the film version of Queen of the Elephants, with having done “more to publicise the predicament of the Asian elephant than anyone else”. There are said to be at most about 30,000 Asian elephants remaining.
Shand began what seemed likely to be a business career buying and selling antique furniture, having shared early adventures with a friend, Harry Fane, founder of the Obsidian gallery in London. But he chafed at wearing suits and found auctioneering a pursuit that could fulfil only part of his life. Back on his travels, he survived an ill-starred sailing trip in the South Pacific in which he narrowly escaped drowning and came ashore to be tended, according to friends, by a Fijian princess.
He led another life, an existence in which he displayed awkwardness among the glittering societies of London and New York. The fall that led to his death in hospital hours later, was not his first. The model Marie Helvin, a former girlfriend, remarked in her autobiography an occasion when, at a charity fashion show in New York, “as we all stepped on to the red carpet, Mark tripped over and fell over flat in front of all the paparazzi”.
His name had been linked romantically to celebrities including Bianca Jagger and Caroline Kennedy. In 1990 he married the French actress Clio Goldsmith, niece of the financier Sir James Goldsmith, and daughter of the publisher of The Ecologist, Edward Goldsmith. They divorced in 2010.
The serious nature of a man who by association acquired the tag of “playboy”, was well understood by a friend and fellow sufferer, the former cricketer Imran Khan, now leader of the Movement for Justice party in Pakistan. Shand was Imran’s son’s godfather, and Imran was one of the first to pay tribute to him.
Shand learned about what seemed to be the opposite of his own experiences from his father, Major Bruce Shand, in heartfelt conversations between the two many years after his own rebellious teenage era. The Major, decorated for the defence of Dunkirk and for action in North Africa, admitted to his son that three years of being held a prisoner of war had entirely put him off travel.
Shand’s mother was the Hon Rosalind Cubitt, a descendant through her mother of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Keppel. Shand was the youngest of three siblings and the only boy. His elder sisters are the Duchess of Cornwall and the interior designer Annabel Elliot.
The Faberge Big Egg Hunt auction over which he presided at Sotheby’s in New York on the last night of his life, and which raised almost £1 million for his elephant charity and others, was only one of several triumphant ventures in which he managed to bring his social connections to the service of his cause. As chairman of Elephant Family, the charity he set up in 2002, he persuaded artists to decorate 260 large model elephants and obtained separate planning permission for each to be placed all over London in 2010, before being auctioned off two months later. He organised similar “Elephant Parades” in The Netherlands.
“I think elephants taught me that you just have to deal with things as they come, even if there is an element of danger in them,” he once reflected.
Mark Roland Shand, conservationist and adventurer: born London 28 June 1951; married 1990 Clio Goldsmith (divorced 2010; one daughter); died New York 23 April 2014.