Written by Douglas Martin and Originally Published in The New York Times on March 11, 2012
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 smoldering Baghdad Zoo after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, died on March 2, 2012 in Johannesburg. He was 61.
The Earth Organization, a conservation group that Mr. Anthony founded in 2003, announced the death. News reports said the cause was a heart attack.
Mr. 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. He worked with diplomats and lawyers to introduce a proposal to the United Nations to prohibit using conservation areas or zoos as targets of war.
Craggy, bearded and exuberant, Mr. 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.
Mr. Anthony’s most widely publicized work was after the United States 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 in the wake of the United States soldiers.
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. They were in such sad shape, he said, that he initially wanted to shoot them to end their misery.
Mr. Anthony worked in Baghdad for six months, often helped by American soldiers, who volunteered their time after a day of patrols. Former Iraqi soldiers who had abandoned the Republican Guard joined the effort several weeks later. He bought donkeys to feed the carnivores. He hunted down one giraffe that had been stolen; another had been eaten by starving Iraqis. 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 United States Army’s Third Infantry Division gave Mr. Anthony a medal for his bravery.
Mr. Anthony joined with Graham Spence, an author and Mr. Anthony’s brother-in-law, to write a book about the experience, “Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo” (2007).
Mr. 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 as he set up offices in small towns. Lawrence was born on Sept. 17, 1950, in Johannesburg, and as a youth liked to roam the African bush with his pet German shepherd. He followed his father into the insurance business, then went into real estate development.
In the mid-1990s, Mr. 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 added luxury accommodations and fine dining to attract tourists eager to see wildlife close up. He also lived there.
Elephants were not part of his plan until 1999, when he got a call offering him nine of the animals — three adult females, three young elephants, an adolescent bull and two babies. He was told they were wild and troublesome and would be shot if he did not take them.
He was gradually able to win the elephants’ trust. He wrote another book with Mr. Spence telling how he came to communicate with the elephants and to appreciate the way they communicated with one another. That book, “The Elephant Whisperer: My Life With the Herd in the African Wild,” was published in 2009.
In 2006, Mr. 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 the 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.
As part of a cease-fire, the rebels agreed to a deal, partly because they regard the rhinos as an important totem. The cease-fire did not hold, and conservationists believe the northern subspecies of the white rhino is now extinct. Another book by Mr. Anthony and Mr. Spence, “The Last Rhinos,” is to be published this year.
Mr. 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.