After Lawrence Anthony watched TV footage of U.S. troops moving into Baghdad in 2003, he immediately set off to save the city’s zoo, the largest in the Middle East. Within days, the South African conservationist arrived in the Iraqi capital with a carful of veterinary supplies, only to find just 35 of the original 650 animals still alive. Those that hadn’t died in their cages had been carried off by looters, and the few survivors, including lions, tigers, and a brown bear, were nearly starved. For six months, with fighting erupting around him, Anthony nurtured the zoo back to life, buying donkeys for meat, dragging buckets of water from a nearby canal, and putting volunteer U.S. and Iraqi soldiers to work. When he left, the cages were clean and the animals were healthy. The U.S. Army awarded him a medal for bravery.
Born in Johannesburg and raised in small towns around southern Africa, Anthony originally followed his father into the insurance business, but “his heart was always in the African bush he had loved as a child,” said the London Telegraph. In the mid-1990s, he bought the 5,000-acre Thula Thula game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province, and later founded the wildlife conservation group Earth Organization. In 1999, he was offered nine unruly elephants that would be shot if he did not take them. He worked diligently and patiently to calm them, and chronicled his story of winning their trust in his 2009 book, The Elephant Whisperer.
Iraq was not Anthony’s only experience saving animals in a war zone, said The New York Times. In 2006, he became the first outsider to visit a base of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he pleaded with the gunmen to protect the last four remaining northern white rhinos in the area. The rebels initially agreed, but a cease-fire subsequently fell apart, and the rhinos are now feared extinct. Still, the animal kingdom seems not to have forgotten Anthony’s efforts. Since his death, his son says, a herd of elephants has “come to his house on the edge of their reserve every night.”