Baghdad’s zoo saviour dies at 61

Lawrence Anthony,who abandoned a career in insurance and real estate to play Noah to the world’s endangered species,most spectacularly in rushing to the smouldering Baghdad Zoo after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

Written by New York Times | Published: March 13, 2012 3:21:31 am

Douglas Martin

Lawrence Anthony,who abandoned a career in insurance and real estate to play Noah to the world’s endangered species,most spectacularly in rushing to the smouldering Baghdad Zoo after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003,died on March 2 in Johannesburg. He was 61. News reports said the cause was heart attack.

Anthony persuaded African rebels who were wanted as war criminals to protect the few remaining northern white rhinoceroses prowling their battlegrounds. He adopted a herd of rogue elephants that would otherwise have been shot. He fought to save crocodiles and other species.

To preserve wildlife and their habitats,he showed antagonistic African tribes how they could benefit by cooperating in setting up game reserves to attract tourists. Craggy,bearded and exuberant,Anthony was known to play music from the rock bands Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple at full volume in his Land Rover as it bounced across the African countryside. He worked with eminent environmental scientists while readily volunteering that he had barely made it through high school.

Anthony’s most widely publicised work was after US and its allies invaded Iraq on March 20,2003. Hearing that Baghdad had the biggest zoo in the Middle East,he was in Kuwait within days and packing a car with veterinary supplies before crossing the Iraq border.

He arrived at the zoo while fighting was still going on to find clouds of flies swarming the carcasses of animals. Looters had stolen many others. Of the 650 animals in the zoo before the invasion,just 35 were still alive,mainly large ones like lions,tigers and a brown bear native to Iraq. Anthony worked in Baghdad for six months. He bought donkeys to feed the carnivores. He hunted down one giraffe that had been stolen. He rescued the Hussein family’s pet lions and tigers.

When he left Iraq,the animals were healthy,the cages were clean and the zoo had been preserved. The US’Army’s 3rd Infantry Division gave Anthony a medal for his bravery.

Anthony joined with Graham Spence,an author and Anthony’s brother-in-law,to write a book about the experience,Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo.

Anthony’s grandfather was a miner who immigrated to South Africa from Scotland on a mail ship in the 1920s. His father founded an insurance business and took the family around southern Africa. Lawrence was born on September 17,1950,in Johannesburg,and as a youth liked to roam the African bush with his pet German shepherd.

In the mid-1990s,Anthony decided to turn his hobby into a career and bought one of South Africa’s largest game sanctuaries,the 5,000-acre Thula Thula reserve. He also lived there. Elephants were not part of his plan until 1999,when he got a call offering him nine of the animals. He was told they were wild and troublesome and would be shot if he did not take them.

In 2006,Anthony met with leaders of the rebel group,the Lord’s Resistance Army,to plead with them not to kill the exceedingly rare northern white rhino in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He said the rebel leaders,who employ child soldiers and have committed rapes and other atrocities,were shocked to learn that experts believed only four of the species were still extant.

Anthony is survived by his wife,Francoise Malby; his mother,Regina; his sons,Dylan and Jason; and two grandsons. The elephants also survive him. Since his death,his son Dylan told reporters,the herd has come to his house on the edge of their reserve every night.

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