In two amazing months Lawrence Anthony had to find food for the staff and starving animals in Baghdad's battle-scarred zoo, rescue lions and tigers from several palaces, and fight and arrest looters bent on destroying the zoo.

A major achievement of the trip was setting up Iraq's first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Anthony, of Thula Thula private game reserve, spoke this week of the "surreal" experience of being the first civilian allowed into a city still at war and finding himself administrator of the biggest zoo in the Middle East. Intending to stay for three days, his stay stretched to two months and he is returning there after raising funds and gathering supplies.

There was still shooting every day, he said. Weapons and tons of explosives are still scattered around the zoo, which is within 1 000ha of parkland, dotted with parks and canals. Last year it received 1,2 million visitors

Aware of the zoo, Anthony feared for the animals when the war started in late March. Through diplomat friends he made contact with a senior United States ambassador who is now a minister in the US administration in Iraq, who facilitated entry to the country.

The zoo was a major battleground, with Iraqi troops fighting US tanks among the animal enclosures.

After getting help from the SA embassy in Kuwait and the Kuwaiti government, Anthony found himself in Baghdad in late April, negotiating US army roadblocks.

He found that of 400 animals, only about 50 remained. Thieves had broken into the zoo, stolen the birds to eat and the other creatures to sell at a thriving black market in exotic animals.

Some lions escaped from damaged cages and while most were recaptured, soldiers had to shoot two that were about to flee into the city.

The Iraqi zoo administrators welcomed him and Anthony said they quickly built up a good relationship because he would defer to them and consult them on decisions. Zoo staff had not been paid for 10 months.

Zoo animals had gone for weeks without food and water before US soldiers arrived and fed the animals their ration packs. They also shot ostriches and boars to feed the starving lions, tigers and bears.

Food brought in by the military from Kuwait had quickly been taken by staff and looters. Hundreds of looters were stripping the zoo of doors, windows and equipment. Later the US authorities gave Anthony an Iraqi officer's pistol and he and zoo staff were able to arrest looters.

Anthony found a 19th century zoo of concrete floors and iron bars, with cages covered in filth and flies. His priority was to stabilise the situation, get food and water and clean the cages.

In one amusing incident, zoo staff and Anthony had to move ostriches on foot from one of the palaces to the zoo.

The birds dashed through four army checkpoints past amused soldiers.

"It helped me with the soldiers and getting through checkpoints. They all talked about the crazy South African," Anthony said.

With the Iraqis, the mention of South Africa and Mandela also opened many doors, he said.

"Some of the zoo staff had been Republican Guard soldiers. As things stabilised and the Iraqis and nearby soldiers got to know each other, it was very moving to see US soldiers and their former enemies kissing each other in greeting," he said.

At a private zoo owned by Saddam Hussein's oldest son, Uday, he found an enclosure of lions and dogs living together. These were all moved to the zoo. He scrounged supplies from looted palaces and hotels.

Anthony found a terrible private zoo, linked to illegal animal trade, that he closed down with the help of Iraqi law and US authorities. Some animals were too sick to stand. A bear was trapped in a tiny cage and other animals were tied to stakes in the hot sun.

After several weeks more help arrived through the Cape Town-based International Fund for Animal Welfare emergency relief team and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. These teams are helping to ensure regular supplies of food and water for the zoo. Anthony also went to the US to raise funds for the zoo.

The plans are now to train the Iraqi staff in modern zoo management, to improve the living conditions of the animals and build better enclosures and work towards opening the zoo to the public.

There are now 19 lions, tigers, brown bears, wolves, foxes, jackals, camels, ostriches, badgers and some primates at the zoo. But many animals are still traumatised by the recent battles.