Profile: Lawrence Anthony

With Hollywood planning a film of Lawrence Anthony's mission to save the animals of Baghdad Zoo, <em

Early Life


Born in 1950 in Johannesburg, Anthony was then raised in remote rural areas of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. “My father worked for a South African insurance company in the then federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and we travelled to and lived in tiny outback towns.” It was in this way that Anthony embraced the African Bush. From an early age he built up his relationship with the animals and recognized the problems created by man for the animal kingdom. It was from such a childhood that a dedication to environmentalism and conservation has emerged. Anthony tells newstatesman.com: “In the old days it was important to look after wildlife but now we have so many critically endangered species. It is so easy for a whole species to be wiped out.”

After finishing high school in Zululand he went into the property business. While in London on business 20 years ago he met his French-born wife, Francoise, while trying to get a taxi. Eventually real estate led to Anthony buying Thula Thula almost a decade ago.

Elephants


The Thula Thula game reserve is the 2,000 hectares of land that brought Anthony back to working full time in the bush. Based in the Province of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa his work mainly revolves around educating and involving the rural communities in conservation and environmental awareness. What has made the reserve famous though is the work Anthony has done with the elephants that now live there. In 1999 seven troublesome elephants needed a home. Despite an initial breakout after just one night, Anthony managed to settle them and there are now 14 in the herd. It’s this rehabilitation of the elephants that has earned Anthony the name “the Elephant Whisperer”. Helping him at the reserve is his wife, Francoise, and two sons, Dylan and Jason. “They have their own businesses but they do spend a lot of time on Thula Thula,” he says.

Charity


Anthony tells newstatesman.com that the Earth Organization was founded after his experience in Baghdad Zoo in 2003. “I grew up in the bush, and if you live in it you see a huge different over half a century. I was prompted by my time in Baghdad.” As a non-profit group they are working towards world conservation. As the website attests “In less than 100 years the Earth’s survival potential has deteriorated to a point where we must now consider that man himself could one day become an endangered species.”

“The charity is going really well. We have seven countries involved at the moment.” But Anthony is quick to remind the New Statesman that there are lots of conservation groups out there all doing something worthwhile. “What we try to do is focus on something that we can actually complete. We want to train people on how they can change a situation,” says Anthony, “Our main job at the moment is getting people to join the organisation. And we encourage members to be active even if it’s small.”

Baghdad Zoo


When the US troops went into Baghdad in 2003 Anthony had a calling. He had to save what animals he could. As the largest of its kind in the Middle East, Baghdad Zoo was caught in the middle of the cross fire.
Anthony claimed that his first instinct was “to find a rifle and shoot the lot. In all my years in the African Bush and in conservation, I had never seen wildlife in such wretched condition.” When the Americans invaded, the zoo was actually the site of a battle. It kept staff away and in turn began to jeopardise the safety of the animals. They were not being fed or watered regularly, let alone properly; animals were then left to the mercy of looters. Whether it was to starving citizens or the black market, Anthony claims that hundreds of animals disappeared.

He was the first civilian, barring media, to be granted access to Iraq. After managing to hire a car in Kuwait he drove, unarmed and unescorted through 500 miles of war zone.

He had a mission on his hands, not only in saving animals but in just getting to the casualties. Eventually, out of the 650 animals that had resided at the zoo, only 35 survived.

For his work at the Zoo Anthony was awarded the United Nations Earth Day Medal and Earth Trustee Award. And how is the zoo doing now? “The US army has spent about $2.5million upgrading the zoo and park in the last two years,” Anthony tells newstatesman.com, “and there is a new plan to extensively renovate it to 1st world standards. From what I have seen it has really improved.”

Negotiator


As well as the African elephant, his conservation work has led him to work with the endangered northern white rhino. It was this mission that led Anthony into talks with the notorious rebels Lord’s Resistance Army of Southern Sudan in 2006. He managed to secure a ceasefire against conservationists and game wardens in the Garamba National Park in the North East of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are recent reports however that the last rhino is gone. Anthony has hope though. “I think the reports say that they haven’t seen the rhino and there is speculation that they may be extinct. The Garamba reserve is extremely big and finding a handful of rhino not at all easy. I hope that this is the case, that they are there but have not been found.”

A current project of the Earth Organization is a draft resolution, submitted to the UN, proposing that all wildlife conservancy areas, marine parks and research facilities be declared illegitimate targets of war. Anthony points out that there has never been any kind of immunity granted for zoos. There has been no facility for caring about zoos in any major war zone. “The UN proposal is going along, and we are tracking its progress and there is a lot of work to do, lots of lobbying and it needs support.” So, it’s progressing, albeit slowly.

The Future


While Anthony prepares his second book, The Herd, detailing his work with his elephants at Thula Thula, Hollywood has been calling. Anthony’s account of saving Baghdad Zoo is to be made into a movie over the next year or so, apparently titled Good Luck, Mr Anthony. “It is exciting,” Anthony tells newstatesman.com, “but it’s been in the pipeline for a while, the writers strike put everything on hold for a while.” For the time being Anthony is working with animals and recruiting help for his organisation, “Wherever there is a situation where I can make a difference. To raise awareness of the dire straits of the plant and animal kingdoms and the environment and to make a positive difference through positive action and example.”