Lawrence Anthony, South African conservationist, dies at 61


Lawrence Anthony, a self-described “bush child” with no formal training in zoology, spent the better part of his life trying to shelter wild animals from the ravages of human conflict. (Photo by Christopher Laurenz)

Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist who charged into the Baghdad Zoo during the U.S. invasion of 2003 and led an animal rescue effort that united warring soldiers, mullahs and Iraqi civilians, died March 2 in Johannesburg. He was 61.

The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Francoise Malby-Anthony.

Mr. Anthony, a self-described “bush child” with no formal training in zoology, spent the better part of his life trying to shelter wild animals from the ravages of human conflict.

In the mid-1990s, after forays into insurance sales and real estate development, he bought a private game reserve about a two-hour drive from Durban. He founded an environmental group, called the Earth Organization, and convinced neighboring Zulu tribes to put aside their differences where African animals were concerned.

Years later, Mr. Anthony muscled his way into diplomatic negotiations with the Lord’s Resistance Army, the militant group from northern Uganda that is led by accused war criminal Joseph Kony. Appealing to local tribal beliefs, Mr. Anthony convinced the rebels not to kill the endangered northern white rhinoceros, which lived in the dense forest under the group’s control.

On his own land, Mr. Anthony took in and tamed a herd of wild elephants that otherwise would have been killed. For that feat, he became known as “the elephant whisperer.”

Mr. Anthony was on his reserve — called Thula Thula, or “peace and tranquillity” in the Zulu language — when the United States led coalition forces into Iraq in March 2003 to topple dictator Saddam Hussein. Watching the invasion on CNN, Mr. Anthony thought immediately of the Baghdad Zoo.

“I couldn’t stand the thought of the animals dying in their cages,” he told the Observer newspaper in England. “I couldn’t get any support from anybody so I thought, I’ll just go. I went there for the animals.”

A U.S. soldier later told Mr. Anthony that, other than journalists, he was among the first civilians to enter Baghdad after the invasion.

He went into the city with two Kuwaiti zookeepers and found that the situation was far more dire than he had expected. Only 35 of the zoo’s 650 animals were alive, he later told reporters. The others had been sold on the black market or killed by looters.

If the animal “didn’t have fangs big enough or claws big enough to protect itself, they took it,” he told National Public Radio. “Baghdad was starving at the time. . . . They were eating the animals.”

The aftermath at the zoo was a macabre scene. Carcasses were strewn about the grounds. Monkeys and birds that had managed to flee were still on the run. The big cats and an Iraqi bear, which was reputed to have killed three looters, had survived but only barely; they appeared traumatized and hungry. Mr. Anthony considered shooting them in pity.

The zoo’s staff members, Mr. Anthony told NPR, were “as hungry as the animals were.” When he called his wife from his satellite phone, she could hear the ongoing bombardments.

In those harrowing circumstances, Mr. Anthony said, “something amazing happened.” Iraqis, coalition forces and members of Hussein’s Republican Guard found a common cause: the animals. Local mullahs, or clerical leaders, put out the order that the work was not to be disrupted.

“We had Republican Guard soldiers working with American troops in the zoo two weeks after they were killing each other,” Mr. Anthony told the Observer.

Together, the workers scoured the city for surviving animals and carried camels and ostriches back to the zoo on Humvees and armored vehicles. Mr. Anthony personally rescued pet lions from the abandoned palace of Saddam’s son Uday Hussein.

The story is recounted in the book “Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo” (2008), which Mr. Anthony wrote with his brother-in-law Graham Spence. The next year, the two men published “The Elephant Whisperer,” an account of his relationship with the elephants he welcomed onto his land.

When the matriarch elephant gave birth to the first calf born under Mr. Anthony’s care, she presented the new arrival to Mr. Anthony. (When his first grandchild was born, he returned the favor and brought the baby to the elephant.)

Lawrence Anthony was born Sept. 17, 1950, in Johannesburg, the grandson of a Scottish miner who had settled in South Africa. As a boy, he was disturbed by stories of the thousands of animals who died at the Berlin Zoo during the Allied bombings of World War II.

Mr. Anthony’s first marriage, to Hilary Morgan, ended in divorce.

Survivors include Francoise Malby-Anthony, his partner of 25 years and wife since 2006, who lives on Thula Thula; two sons from his first marriage, Dylan Anthony and Jason Anthony, both of Durban; his mother, Regina Anthony, who lives on a residential game reserve near Empangeni, South Africa; a sister; a brother; and two grandsons.

“The Last Rhinos,” a book about Mr. Anthony’s talks with the LRA, is forthcoming. Those negotiations appeared to have come too late. In 2006, when the rebels agreed not to disturb the northern white rhino, four of the animals were thought to be alive in the wild. By the time of his death, Mr. Anthony believed the last of them to be gone.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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