• Thorbjarnarson established conservation programs around the world to save threatened and endangered reptiles
  • WCS Conservation fund will be set up in his name

(February 25, 2010) The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) mourns the loss of Senior Conservation Scientist Dr. John Thorbjarnarson, 52, who died in India on Feb. 14th from falciparum malaria. Thorbjarnarson was instrumental in the conservation and protection of a wide variety of reptiles including the critically endangered Orinoco crocodile and Chinese alligator, along with gharials, caimans, and crocodiles.

Thorbjarnarson had a long history with WCS, receiving a Research Fellows grant in 1982 to study the status and ecology of the American crocodile. While a complete herpetologist, he specialized in crocodilians, beginning with WCS in the early 1990s on a post-doctoral stint after finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Florida. In 1993, he was the first Assistant Director for WCS’s growing Latin American program.

Thorbjarnarson studied ecology, reproduction and behavior and used this information to better understand the demands and needs of the species with which he worked. He studied the ecology and distribution of the American crocodile in Haiti for his Master’s degree and continued to work with this species intermittently throughout his career.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, working with the late conservationist Tomas Blohm, Thorbjarnarson established a captive breeding population of the critically endangered Orinoco crocodile in Venezuela. Working closely with governmental wildlife authorities and NGOs, he was able to establish preserves into which captive-produced young crocodiles were released. This project still continues today, more than two decades later with more than 1,500 crocodiles released into the wild.  In the late 1990s, Thorbjarnarson initiated status surveys of the critically endangered Chinese alligator in southern China.  Results of these surveys indicated a near total extermination of this species in the wild, with fewer than 120 individuals estimate and habitat range reduced to a total on only 11 hectares, scattered in the Yangtze River valley in tiny patches amid a sea of agriculture. The alarming results of these surveys altered the conservation community as well as Chinese authorities to the plight of this small alligator. Chinese wildlife biologists have since initiated habitat restoration projects and reintroduction programs for this species.

Thorbjarnarson studied reptiles in more than 30 countries. He worked for more than a decade with Cuban crocodilian biologists studying the highly endangered Cuban crocodile, a species with a small natural range that is threatened with hybridization with the American crocodile. His great strength was as an instigator and facilitator. He identified projects of the greatest conservation concern and initiated these. His practice was to enlist the help of local university students in his research. Once the initial research is completed, these students remain to carry on the work that he begun.  

He published widely and was a well respected scholar among his peers.  He recently completed a book: “The Chinese Alligator: Ecology, Behavior, Conservation and Culture,” which will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in April.  In 2004, he was awarded the Castillo Conservation Prize by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Crocodile Specialist Group. He was also a Courtesy Professor for the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation and School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Florida; an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and an Adjunct Curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He advised numerous graduate students around the world.

Thorbjarnarson was a 1979 graduate of Cornell University and received a Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 1991.

He is survived by his parents and two sisters.

With the generous support of the Thorbjarnarson family, WCS will establish a memorial fund in John’s honor to promote the conservation of the world’s endangered reptile species. Donations can be made online through the WCS website: www.wcs.org.

Stephen Sautner: (1-718-220-3682; ssautner@wcs.org)
John Delaney: (1-718-220-3275; jdelaney@wcs.org)

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth.