01/02/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

The Man Adopted by Elephants

We lost a lot of interesting and some important people in 2012, and the media made much of that. The story I found the most touching, the death I feel the most worthy our attention (and the loss I will mourn for a long time) was that of Lawrence Anthony. A name you may not know but the story that brought him to the public's eye is likely one you will remember. Anthony was the wildlife conservationist who, back in 2003, flew into decimated Baghdad to attempt to save the animals of the bombed zoo.

Most of the animals (over 600 of the 650) were already dead or missing by the time he arrived: taken as food by a starving population, shot by looters, victims of the mass destruction, stolen for sale on the black market. His book about this campaign, Babylon's Ark, is well worth your time.

Years before, Lawrence Anthony agreed to accept onto his private African reserve a herd of elephants who would otherwise have been killed. Survivors of poachers, this small herd was exhibiting what in humans would be called symptoms of PTSD: erratic often violent behavior, threatening other wildlife as well as property and humans.

The young matriarch of the herd, Nana, was not one to accept captivity no matter how kind the motives of her new human keeper. She showed no interest in captivity, no trust in man, and despite the electric shocks she continued to break through the fence of their enclosure. A desperate Anthony, aware that officials' bullets were the next step in "controlling" this herd, responded by setting up a tent just outside the enclosure and spent weeks in face-to-face talks with Nana. "I hoped she'd understand by the tone of my voice any my body language," he explained to a reporter. "And one morning, instead of trying to break the fence down, she just stood there. Then she put her trunk through the fence toward me. I knew that she wanted to touch me. That was a turning point."

Lawrence once explained, "It's not a case of adopting the elephants. It's being patient enough until they adopt you."

That was 1999. Lawrence Anthony died March 2, 2012, on a business trip hundreds of miles away from the elephants. On March 4, 2012, Nana and the herd gathered at his home on the grounds of the reserve, the first time they'd been to this spot in more than 6 months, and stood vigil for hours.