Our dear uncle, Dr. John Thorbjarnarson died from malaria in India on february the 14th. John was born 1957 and was one of the great roll models in our family. He was almost a mythological idol in the minds of the younger generation, living an extraordinary life traveling around the planet through swamps, rivers and jungles, saving endangered animals from extinction. John was a Conservation Officer for the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in Gainesville, Florida and had spent nineteen years leading in situ conservation efforts of reptiles for WCS. He was a noted expert on the conservation biology of crocodiles worldwide – having led efforts in the recovery of both Orinoco crocodiles in Venezuela and Chinese alligators in Anhui, China. He was also well known for his long term efforts focused on capacity building and conservation of crocodiles in Cuba and Black caiman in Brazil. He was part of the team doing the first large study on the life and habitat of the anaconda in Venezuela.
I am a part of the Icelandic branch of Johns family. John was born 1957, he was the son of Björn Thorbjarnarson and Margaret Thorbjarnarson. Björn was a chief surgeon in the New York Hospital and professor at Cornell, he was born in the west fjords of Iceland and left for America in the late 1940s. Björn and Margaret had four children, John, Kathy, Paul and Lisa, but my mother, or mothers – Bjorns identical twin girls, Kristin and Gudrun were born and raised in Iceland.
It was a great adventure for a young child to get to know this part of the family, afi, Peggy and the cool bunch of teenagers living in the big white house in the suburbs of New Jersey. They had all kinds of animals, a dog and cats but Johns bedroom was a whole universe. He had a small caiman and in a glass cage – a huge boa constrictor. We could handle it and it would even swim with us in the pool. John was a very charming young man, entertaining and funny – John’s path in life was a perfect example of following your childhood dreams. In an interview John was asked when he got interested in crocodiles he answered:
“I remember in the late 60s watching a television program, I think by National Geographic, on the alligators in the Everglades. I was very moved by the whole thing, droughts were affecting the wildlife and hunters were taking alligators and I remember thinking that I wanted to work on alligators when I grew up. ”
Here you can see when his childhood dream had come true – on National Geographic, where he probably inspired other children:
Maybe it should not be called a childhood dream – perhaps something more like a calling. We always knew that his job was not exactly the safest on the planet – but he always said that snakes and crocodiles were not the greatest dangers. Traffic, food or disease was a far bigger risk.
We were proud to see John in a National Geographic show or in a New York Times interview and it was great to hear that his work was actually effective. He was a scientist, specialized in cold blooded animals but himself full of warmth with a strong human touch – he could act as a peacekeeper between people and the creatures they feared the most, he could eliminate prejudice and create understanding for the graceful but unpopular creatures in the crocodile family. He could get people to understand that a crocodile is a healthy sign in an ecosystem – not some kind of a pest to be exterminated. By destroying the habitat of the crocodile, the wetlands, swamps and rivers, people would eventually harm their own existence. He was realistic and understood that people needed a source of living – and by promoting sustainable hunting the long term benefit of a species could be secured.
John came to Iceland a few times for a visit – Iceland is one of few places in the world without any reptiles, no snakes, frogs or lizards. He came with his father to visit his birthplace – Bildudalur in the west fjords. John was a distant roll model for us – it is hard to catch up with somebody that spends his time in Asia, South – America and Africa – but his traveling around the world became a part of our identity. Our own life was not always an interesting subject at a dinner party, but we could always impress people by saying that some day – in the future, (when the kids become a bit older) – we would go as volunteers and catch anacondas or caimans with uncle John for a few weeks. Those plans have changed – but his memory will still inspire us and we will tell our children about his work. Thanks to John and people like him – the animals will be there to be researched.
John was in India to give a course at the Wildlife Institute when he succumbed to a severe case of falciparum malaria. He will be sadly missed by his colleagues and friends. The loss is even greater for the family as his brother, Paul died in 1996. John has two sisters in the United states and two in Iceland and a big family on both sides that misses him. It is because of men like John that many endangered species still exist on this planet. It is because of men like him that we know that childhood dreams are something you can follow. Our thoughts and prayers are with afi and Peggy.