Obituary: Lawrence Anthony: conservationist who saved Baghdad Zoo's animals

18 March 2012 - 02:17 By Chris Barron
IN HIS ELEMENT: Lawrence Anthony on his KwaZulu-Natal reserve, relaxing in a game-viewing vehicle with his dog, Tug Picture: RICHARD SHOREY
IN HIS ELEMENT: Lawrence Anthony on his KwaZulu-Natal reserve, relaxing in a game-viewing vehicle with his dog, Tug Picture: RICHARD SHOREY

SOUTH African conservationist Lawrence Anthony, who has died at the age of 61, became something of an international sensation when he saved the animals in the Baghdad Zoo after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

While watching television images of Baghdad being reduced to rubble by the US bombardment, he suddenly remembered reading that it had the biggest zoo in the Middle East.

He contacted the Americans and British to ask what they were doing about the animals. The answer was, "Nothing." So he headed to the Kuwait-Iraq border in a hired car loaded with veterinary supplies.

When the Americans barred his way, he talked Kuwaiti border guards into letting him through. Then, with a couple of Kuwaiti zoo workers, he followed US tanks and trucks into Baghdad.

He found the mayhem that greeted him at the zoo so shocking that he almost turned around and left at once.

The zoo's deputy director was in tears. Fly-infested, rotting carcasses lay everywhere. Lions had escaped, a bear had eaten some looters, and other looters had begun eating a giraffe. More animals, including lions and tigers, lay around in a state of shock, almost dead from starvation and lack of water.

There are few things more dangerous than a starving lion. At one point Anthony entered an apparently empty cage to find himself being keenly sized up by a number of them. He forgot the rules - back away slowly, never take your eyes off them - turned around and fled.

He organised water, carried by bucket from a stagnant canal, and bought donkeys to feed to the predators. Within weeks, he had volunteers from both the US Army and Iraq's vanquished Republican Guard working alongside each other to help feed the animals and fix and clean the cages.

He was recognised by the United Nations, the US gave him a Distinguished Infantry Medal for bravery, he co-wrote a book with his brother-in-law, former South African journalist Graham Spence, Babylon's Ark, and Hollywood came knocking.

Anthony, with his rugged, bearded face, thought Brad Pitt "a good likeness" and suggested he be approached to play him.

Born in Johannesburg on September 17 1950, Anthony came from Scottish mining stock. His grandfather immigrated to South Africa to work on the gold mines. His father started an insurance business, and Anthony lived in small towns in rural Rhodesia, Zambia, Malawi and Zululand, where he opened offices.

He attended King Edward VII School in Houghton, Johannesburg, and Empangeni High School in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, where he matriculated in 1968. Anthony, who was to work so closely with eminent environmental scientists and who served on the governing council of the SA Association for the Advancement of Science, cheerfully admitted that he passed by the skin of his teeth.

He worked in property development and insurance until, in the mid-1990s, he was wealthy enough to give it all up for the African bush and wildlife conservation.

He bought the 2000ha Thula Thula game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, made it his home and converted it into a luxury destination for wealthy tourists who wanted to see wildlife up close and in comfort.

In 1999, a conservation group asked him to take over and rehabilitate nine rogue elephants that were so out of control they were about to be shot.

His book about how he did this was The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild.

Anthony undertook expeditions into South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet leaders of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army and persuade them not to kill the northern white rhino, which was on the verge of extinction.

Although they were surprisingly receptive to his arguments, after a brief hiatus, the killing continued, and it is believed the northern white rhino has been wiped out.

Anthony understood that the only way to ensure wildlife conservation was to give rural communities living among wild animals a financial stake in their preservation. He created two reserves in KwaZulu-Natal that provided local people with jobs and income through wildlife tourism.

Anthony, who died of heart failure in his sleep, is survived by his wife, Francoise, and two sons.