Sunday, December 30, 2012

Babylon's ark

"I couldn’t stand the thought of the animals dying in their cages." Lawrence Anthony

ANYONE WHO'S READ Hey Look more than a couple of times knows I'm hooked on the New York Times for its thorough and superbly diverse coverage. At the end of each year, The Magazine offers a collection of vignettes, called The Lives They Lived, profiling selected people who have passed away in the last 12 months. 

I enjoy the editor's choices for the anthology. Included are always some very recognizable names, but as many of those featured are individuals who, though they've made a memorable impact in one way or another on the world at large, aren't people you probably would have known or at least known much about. Here's a particularly special one about Lawrence Anthony.

Lawrence Anthony
B. 1950 
written by Charles Siebert

BACK IN 1999, LAWRENCE ANTHONY, a South African wildlife conservationist, received a call from a conservation organization asking him if he’d give refuge to a herd of nine renegade elephants on his expansive reserve, in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal province. The orphans of poaching and culling, many of the problem elephants were exhibiting the erratic and irascible behaviors of juvenile delinquents with post-traumatic-stress disorder: repeatedly escaping from their enclosures, destroying property and threatening other wildlife and humans. The animals would be shot, Anthony was told, if he couldn’t settle them on his land.

Anthony had named his reserve Thula Thula (Zulu for “peace and tranquillity”), a somewhat paradoxical moniker given his penchant for speeding around the property in his Land Rover, blasting Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. He lived with his family in the main farmhouse and built five-star accommodations on the reserve, establishing an eco-tourism mecca to help finance his conservation efforts.

Anthony first tried getting the elephants acclimated in a smaller enclosure within Thula Thula bordered by an electric fence. But a particularly willful one named Nana kept breaking the group out despite the intense shocks she incurred. She and another elephant once uprooted a tree, which smashed against the fence, short-circuiting the wiring. Finally, Anthony set up an encampment directly alongside the enclosure, and for the next three weeks he spent much of the time in face-to-face talks with Nana, pleading with the fiercely protective matriarch not to leave, trying to persuade her that this was a safe place, that she could trust him.


Add caption Survivors of the Iraq war at the Baghdad Zoo
in 2003. Anthony led a zoo-recovery effort there.

“I hoped she’d understand by the tone of my voice and my body language,” Anthony told The Sydney Morning Herald. “And one morning, instead of trying to break the fence down, she just stood there. Then she put her trunk through the fence toward me. I knew she wanted to touch me. . . . That was a turning point.”

After that, the elephants were released into the larger reserve and roamed within its protective boundaries. They made Anthony one of their own, always aware, somehow, of when he was off traveling. No matter how far away their foraging might take them, they gathered at the Anthonys’ front gate upon his return.

“It’s not a case of adopting the elephants,” Anthony once explained. “It’s being patient enough until they adopt you.”

Anthony saved countless animals during his lifetime, but perhaps his best-known rescue came in 2003. He was sitting at home one night in March of that year, watching the bombing in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and his mind turned to the animals in the Baghdad Zoo, the largest in the Middle East. “I couldn’t stand the thought of the animals dying in their cages,” he told The Observer in England. “So I thought, I’ll just go.”

Within days he’d talked his way across the Kuwait-Iraq border in a car he had stocked with veterinary supplies, and joined an Army convoy bound for Baghdad. Only 35 of the zoo’s 650 animals were found still alive. The rest had been shot by looters, sold on the black market or, in the case of one giraffe, eaten by starving citizens. Flies swarmed rotting carcasses. Monkeys and baboons listlessly roamed the grounds. Escaped parrots and raptors circled above.

Anthony considered humanely shooting the emaciated survivors, mostly lions and tigers and one brown bear. Instead, he began a zoo-recovery effort, even managing to get local mullahs to issue orders that his work not be interrupted. With a band of volunteers, water was soon being hauled in from a nearby canal. Donkeys were purchased from street vendors to feed the carnivores. Workers led camels and ostriches back to their enclosures. Soldiers in Humvees herded home stray lions. Anthony personally rescued one stolen giraffe and the pet lions in the abandoned palace of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. When Anthony left Iraq six months later, “Babylon’s Ark,” as he dubbed it in a book, written with his brother-in-law, Graham Spence, was afloat again.

One night last March, Anthony was away on business in Johannesburg, some 400 miles from Thula Thula, when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Two days later, the herd of elephants that Anthony had taken in gathered at his Thula-Thula home. It was the first time they had been there in six months. They stood vigil for a couple of hours before turning and heading back into the bush.


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