John Thorbjarnarson – in memoriam

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.

6 thoughts on “John Thorbjarnarson – in memoriam”

  1. Hermoso escrito sobre John, “Juan caimán” como lo conociamos en Masaguaral, Venezuela. Siempre lo recordaremos, por su gran calidad humana y sentido del humor. Uno hombre dedicado a la investigación y la conservación. Lo extrañaremos.

    Siempre te recordaremos John.


  2. What a sad news! I am Dr. Wang Zhenghuan from East China Normal University (ECNU), Shanghai, China. John worked with us on a Chinese alligator project since 1997, and I became to know him since 2000 when I just entered the graduate school of ECNU as a graduate student.

    To my knowledge, John was a wise, kind, earnest, humorous man. But, what makes me most impressed is his persistence to pursue the truth. I remember the statement he told me in 2003:”Nothing is easy in the adult world.” This statement is always in my mind when I encounter problems.

    John told me an interesting thing from his nephew (I don’t know which one) to him. He received a greeting card from his nephew on which the “Uncle John” was misspelled to “nucal John”, which reminded us the neck scale of alligators. Later, Nucal John became the nickname which I called him.

    As the plan he would visit us in Shanghai in this May. Unfortunately……
    We will keep on the work which is started with him. And I will tell his stories to my students. A good man should be rememberd by the younger generations.
    I wish him happiness in heaven, my mentor and my elder friend.

  3. I was shocked when I heard this sad news. I am Zirong Li from Chongming Dongtan National Nature Reaserve ,Shanghai,China and I used to work for WCS-China and met John in shanghai and Anhui Province for Chinese Alligator project several times.

    I my memory, he was a nice, kind,humorous biologist. he was devoted himself to Chinese Alligator for a long time and brought lots of good understanding and spirit for us, these younger generation.

    Just want to say to John,my friend: you will live in our heart forever, wish you happiness in heaven.

  4. I am Kejia Zhang, I have several field experiences of Chinese alligator with John in China when I was a student of East China Normal University; later I became John’s Chinese colleague because I worked for WCS China program 4 years ago.
    As Wangzhenghuan said, John is the genuine and greatest friend of our lab, he gave us valuable help on alligator research, and brought us happiness. We love him. His passing away is a huge shock to us, I think it is the saddest news in 2010! I could not say more, I just want to say he did excellent job in China, and made good friend here also. God bless John.

  5. When I got the tragic news, I was too sad to write any words. I am Lu Shunqing, the coordinator of WCS China Reptile Program. In the recent 3 years, I worked together with John T.. Together, we band the radio transmitters on Chinese alligators; we released 6 Chinese alligators in Dongtan Wetland, Chongming Island; we visited the two Chinese alligator breeding centers in China several times; we surveyed the potential habitat along the Yangtze river. We also plan to visit several fresh water lakes in Anhui this year, but……Thank you, John, I learned much from you. God bless you!


    I was a very close friend of John’s younger brother Paul who would often speak about the work his brother was doing in a mythical type way. I grew up in a house down the street from that big white New Jersey suburb house you mentioned. John has left a legacy as did Paul. I think the two brothers are reunited in a magical place.

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