File Photo: Lawrence Anthony is greeted by one of his beloved elephants at Thula Thula Game Reserve. Picture: Zululand Observer
File Photo: Lawrence Anthony is greeted by one of his beloved elephants at Thula Thula Game Reserve. Picture: Zululand Observer
File Photo: Lawrence Anthony and his wife Francois, at home with their dog, Gypsy. Picture: Wildside
File Photo: Lawrence Anthony and his wife Francois, at home with their dog, Gypsy. Picture: Wildside

‘He was the bravest man I ever met. No, he wasn’t a saint, he was human, but I don’t know of anyone who could do what he has done.”

Graham Spence, a former Durban journalist and co-author of The Elephant Whisperer and Babylon Ark with larger-than-life conservationist Lawrence Anthony, speaks of his “absolute friend” and “brother” as a man who never thought about death, or much about the dangerous situations he often put himself into.

Their third book, The Last Rhinos, which is the story of Anthony’s journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo in an attempt to stop the slaughter of the northern white rhino, is set for release in April 2012.

“Lawrence was a guy who couldn’t grow old. When we got the call (about his death) and my wife came up the stairs to tell me, I just knew what had happened before she said anything.

“He’d had two heart attacks previously, but we thought he was on the mend.

“He was a lifelong smoker. Even so, I thought he was indestructible, but I also can’t imagine Lawrence in his gown and slippers growing old,” he said.

Spence, who is married to the former conservationist’s sister, Terry, and lives in London, said his brother-in-law, who had a fatal heart attack in his sleep last week, was known the world over through the books for his daring exploits.

As described in the Elephant Whisperer, he adopted a wild and traumatised elephant herd, giving the creatures a home on his 2 000-hectare Thula Thula (meaning quiet) Game Reserve in northern Zululand.

During the American invasion of Iraq, Anthony went to the rescue of the animals in the famed Baghdad Zoo.

“There’s a great moment in the book Babylon Ark when Lawrence and two Baghdad zookeepers are trying to care for the animals. Word comes to warn them that the fighting is drawing closer and they should get out. The two keepers looked to Lawrence, saying they didn’t have a car,” Spence recalled.

“Without thinking twice, he gave them his car. There he was in the middle of a war zone, no car, warring forces are drawing closer and it’s just him and some animals.

“In the yet-to-be-published The Last Rhinos, there he is in the depths of the jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo carrying a bright red suitcase looking for Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, who leads the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), probably the most wanted man in The Hague at the moment.

“Anthony was the only non-media person to go to the camp,” Spence recalled.

“They trusted him because he was completely non-political, and he knew that the LRA was the answer to the survival of the wildlife in one of the world’s largest game reserves.

“There are many brave conservationists out there trying to save the last of our natural heritage, but Lawrence did things differently. He could drive you mad with his unpredictability. But he was the bravest man I ever met.

“He never looked for the limelight. In fact, I can remember once he told me he had addressed an audience somewhere and, at the end, they all stood up and applauded him. He was so surprised. But once he knew he had it (the limelight), he certainly knew how to use it.

“However,” said Spence, “Lawrence’s attempts to save the dwindling northern white rhino came too late. Sadly, they’re all gone now.”

Anthony was born in the former northern Rhodesia, the Zambia of today, and spent some time in Malawi as a child.

“The bush was right outside the back door,” he said.

Educated first in Joburg, at King Edward VII School, and then in Empangeni, Anthony was a successful businessman and estate agent.

“All the time, though, he was getting more and more into Thula Thula. It’s the oldest proclaimed game reserve in the country. Owning it was his dream,” said Spence.

And his love and passion for nature, according to Anthony’s sister, Terry, was passed on from their mother, Reg Anthony, former editor and managing director of the Zululand Observer.

In a voice wobbly with emotion, Reg tells of the unique and oft written-about relationship between Anthony and the once-rogue elephant herd at Thula Thula.

“He made a decision about a year ago to distance himself from the elephants. The herd had become big and he was aware of the increasing number of tourists coming to Thula Thula, and he didn’t want to endanger them. The elis had not been to the house for about 15 months.

“Last Thursday, after Anthony’s death, the whole herd came to the house and they have come every night since. Anthony was convinced that they could communicate on another level. And now here they are, every night, coming to say goodbye.”

But who is going to look out for the animals now?

Dylan, Anthony’s eldest son, says everything at Thula Thula will go on as before.

“My brother, Jason, and I helped start The Earth Organisation with my dad seven years ago. I am also very involved with the business side of the reserve, so nothing will change.

“David Bozas, who worked with my dad from the beginning and has been running Thula Thula for some years now, will carry on. Nothing will change.”

But, Dylan admitted, his father’s sometime offbeat way of doing things would be missed. Perhaps it is not wrong to say that Anthony may be larger in his death than he was even in life.

Anthony’s funeral will be held in the Moses Mabhida Stadium at 2pm on Thursday. The family will then take the great man’s ashes back to Thula Thula for a private ceremony.

“We will scatter them where he loved to sit and be with his beloved elephants,” said Dylan. - The Mercury