The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society

Still from National Geographic Society film Black Caimans Project

In Memoriam: John Thorbjarnarson

John B. Thorbjarnarson, well-known Wildlife Conservation Society herpetologist, died of malaria in India on February 14, 2010.

While focusing much of his work on crocodilians, he also studied turtles extensively and was a presenter at the NYTTS-sponsored 1993 Purchase Conference and a senior author in the Proceedings of the conference.

University of North Florida herpetologist Chuck Schaffer has written the tribute below.

A Life in Conservation
March 23, 1957–February 14, 2010
By Chuck Schaffer

It is certainly a difficult task to put into words a person’s life in such as short tribute as this, especially after such a tragic loss. It is all the more daunting when it is to honor someone who lived such a full life, even in such a short period of time, as did John Thorbjarnarson, or John T as many of us knew him best. I’ll always remember him in a baseball cap and tattered button down shirt with a ready smile and story for any occasion. He was not only the consummate conservationist, but was a person to be remembered for so many things. He had an amazing memory for personal interests and always had something interesting to add. He always had a Manouria anecdote or sighting of them from some distant land, or news of a strange book for me. And I was certainly not unique in that respect. He was universally well liked, and I can honestly say, I never heard a harsh word spoken of him.

John was born on March 23, 1957 and died on February 14, 2010, in India. Collapsing after giving a course at the Wildlife Institute of India, he was taken to the best hospital and given the best possible care. But by then it was already too late. He was diagnosed with advanced falciparum malaria likely contracted on his recent trip to Uganda working to save the animals he loved. And John died in New Delhi, India, doing what he loved, passing on his knowledge to those who will now carry his torch.

Although for many years, he had called Gainesville, Florida, his home, he spent a great deal of time traveling to the far reaches of the globe — Africa, India, South America, Southeast Asia… Growing up near Old Tappan, NJ, he attended Northern Valley Regional High School, followed by college at Cornell in 1979, and later received his Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 1991. John was Senior Conservation Officer of the Wildlife Conservation Society and had been with them since 1993. He was also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University.

His accomplishments were many and myriad. John was well known for his studies of reproductive ecology, diet, feeding behavior, movement patterns, habitat use, social behavior, and population dynamics. But for him, this research into the ecology and behavior of reptiles, didn’t stop here as a purely academic endeavor. He utilized this data in the development of conservation programs for a number of endangered species. Seeking solutions outside of the box, he explored subsistence and sustainable use of reptiles, fitting this approach into a number of in-situ conservation efforts.

Although John was primarily known and respected as one of the world’s premier crocodilian biologists, he was much much more. Among his many exothermic interests were the American and Orinoco crocodiles, spectacled caiman, Chinese alligator, anaconda, and of course, turtles. His approach to conservation through community-based programs and sustainable use were both innovative and effective.

Perhaps Anders Rhodin worded it most succinctly in his tribute, “I echo the sentiments of others as I stop to reflect on the dedication to conservation, crocodiles, and turtles that John had, and how he was always traveling to the ends of the earth and into wilderness regions to pursue his passion and work. His energy and devotion will indeed be sorely missed. How fragile is our existence sometimes and how close to the brink we all walk — yet at that brink are the challenges and opportunities we all savor. The risks we take are commensurate with the benefits we accrue — be they personal or professional. John loved his work and I'm sure he would not have changed what he did. His passing is untimely and incredibly sad, but his life was an inspiration. We shall remember and honor that life.”

His sister, Lisa, wanted me to add that, “he was a beloved son, brother, uncle and friend. Words can’t express, obviously, what he meant to us. Thanks again for all your support.”

John was a truly unique individual, one in a million as they say, and a good friend to those of us who knew him. He was incredibly well respected, putting all of his energy, his heart and his soul, into conserving the animals he loved. He leaves large shoes to be filled and will be sorely missed and always remembered fondly.

For more on John go to the blog of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, which has a nice interview with John about his work:

See John in action in the Amazon in a National Geographic video on the Black Caimans Project.

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