Fancy another inspirational South African story? Because I’ve got one!
Apart from Google, I gather most of my news from BBC Radio 4, so I know a lot about breast cancer recovery rates in the UK, how bad the pay gap is in Britain and ways to cook pumpkin risotto. However, one lucky morning by sheer chance I caught an interview with Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist and mad South African who took it upon himself in the early days of the Iraq invasion to go to Baghdad to rescue the remaining animals in the Baghdad Zoo. I was amazed and astonished by his story, and then last week, a friend lent me his book, which tells this very tale.
Lawrence Anthony owns a game reserve called Thula Thula in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa that I call home. KZN is a land of immense privilege and immense poverty. Game reserves attract vital tourist dollars that support not only conservation and these precious oases of savannah, but also local communities who find jobs as game rangers and reserve staff. If you ever have the chance to go on safari, snap it up; it’s an unbelievable opportunity to experience beautiful animals in their natural surroundings.
Lawrence Anthony was watching the fall of Baghdad on TV from the relative comfort of Thula Thula in April 2003 when he realised that he, of all people on earth, was going to do what he could to rescue the animals of Baghdad. He says:
Standing out there on that magnificent African starlit night, watching my elephants contentedly showing off their progeny, I decided for once I was not going to be a bystander. Enough was enough. It was time for me to make a stand, even if I failed.
He got himself a visa, some money, said goodbye to his family and within days found himself waiting on the Iraq/Kuwaiti border with two brave compatriots from the Kuwait Zoo. They were the first civilians to enter Iraq after the invasion. They found their way to Bagdad, miraculously unscathed, and found both the city and the zoo to be a scene of apocalypse. I won’t repeat the details of what he found at the zoo, but accept that it was horrifying: 80% of the animals were dead or looted, and only the carnivores were left. These were nearly dead of starvation and dehydration.
Anthony’s book tells of how during the next few weeks he managed to scrabble an existence for these creatures: all the pipes had been looted, so he carried water to the cages in tin cans, and when he was finally given a bucket, it was stolen. He fed them with food brought from Kuwait. The zoo staff, hearing that someone was feeding and watering the animals, trickled back, and with their support he started cleaning up the cages, scaring off looters and slowly creating order from the chaos. He paid the staff, so that they had enough food to feed themselves and their families, and so that they had the energy to come to work and haul water for the animals. The staff then sourced donkeys as food for the animals.
When Anthony was sure that the animals of the Baghdad Zoo were going to live, he then turned his attention to Saddam Hussein’s many private zoos and menageries. The book details how he and his team rescued lions, bears and even ostriches from unspeakable conditions in other places in the city. One particularly vivid image has three ostriches running through an army barricade, closely followed by a troop carrier with an ostrich’s neck and head sticking out of the top.
What is stunning about this story is Anthony’s deep-seated conviction that the animals mattered. When his colleagues from Kuwait decide to head home, understandably unsettled by the precarious nature of life in Baghdad, Anthony decides to stay. He watches his life-line, in the form of his Kuwaiti rental car, drive away and realises that whatever it takes he will make a stand on behalf of the animals:
I considered again my reasons for coming here. For me, this was more than just about saving a zoo. It was about making a moral and ethical stand, about saying we cannot do this to our planet anymore. This realization had a profound impact on me, and I decided that an example had to be set. A responsible, influential stand had to made against mankind’s irreverence for other life-forms. I decided then and there than Baghdad was to be the place it started.
The rest of the book tells of more animal rescues, Anthony’s efforts to get the zoo onto the radar of the US administration in order to receive much-needed funds, and well-intentioned – but insulting to the Iraqis – attempts by international NGOs to relocate some of the Zoo animals to the wilds. While not a political book, it inevitably becomes of and about politics as Anthony negotiates the fragile space between Americans and Iraqis. He was still an outsider after all.
The book is jointly written by Anthony and journalist Graham Spence. It’s a well-written, gripping story that happens also to be true. It gave me a different viewpoint into the invasion and the war, and all the wonderful people who are doing their best inside their city and their country to survive day-to-day.
Lawrence Anthony received the prestigious Earth Day Award at the United Nations in March 2004 for his rescue of the animals at the Baghdad Zoo. In September 2004, he was invited to become the first South African member of the Explorers Club of New York. Lawrence Anthony is the founder of the international Earth Organisation dedicated to environmental issues.
Because none survive alone.