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A World Map With No National Borders and 1,642 Animals

A self-taught artist-cartographer and outdoorsman spent three years on an obsessive labor of love with few parallels.

In July 2020, his universe shrunk to a two-bedroom apartment by a rattling train line, Anton Thomas pulled out an H pencil and opened a portal to the world.

At once, his days of solitude were filled with New Zealand’s native birds; cavorting dolphins, turtles and whales; and polar bears on ice floes. Three years, approximately 2,602 working hours and 1,642 animal species later, “Wild World” is a hand-drawn map of our planet that both inspires and celebrates wonder.

Mr. Thomas, an exuberant New Zealander living in Melbourne, Australia, initially anticipated spending less than a year on the project. But as the months wore on and he sank deeper into the “opportunity to escape spiritually, and to not go mad,” he said, the scope of the task grew. It was sometimes a wrench to drag himself away at the end of the day.

A hiker and outdoorsman, Mr. Thomas as a child yearned for a world where nature ruled supreme. His map represents the “idealistic planet that I wanted,” Mr. Thomas, 34, said. “I would look out at Wellington Harbor,” in the New Zealand capital, “and see all the houses, and imagine what it was like before any humans showed up.”

To craft each creature with sufficient detail, he drew mostly under a magnifying glass, using sandpaper to sculpt his pencil ends to fastidious points.

Almost as time-consuming was the research guiding his hand. Should a South Atlantic archipelago be written as the Falkland Islands or Las Malvinas? Did it matter that the thylacine, sometimes called the Tasmanian tiger, is probably extinct? Was a fighting bull Spain’s most iconic animal?

So Mr. Thomas set himself guidelines. Animals should be native to their location and neither domesticated nor extinct. The names of places would, where possible, be the ones preferred by their inhabitants. Human-made borders do not feature. (In practice, this meant both names appear; the thylacine does not; and a Cantabrian brown bear supplanted the toro.)

Illustrated maps like Mr. Thomas’s are powerful in part because they mimic how the human brain perceives the world, said John Roman, an artist-cartographer in Boston and the author of “The Art of Illustrated Maps.”

“We don’t see the latitude and longitude lines of maps,” he said. “We see the world, in our heads, through icons.”

For Mr. Thomas, this equates to a kind of “emotional geography,” where features with greater emotional heft — the New York City skyline, say, or the Golden Gate Bridge — may take up more space.

“There are animals the sizes of mountain ranges on my map,” he said. “But you know what? The African lion should tower over Kilimanjaro, if we’re drawing an emotional map.”

Almost as extraordinary as Mr. Thomas’s maps, said Tom Patterson, a retired cartographer for the National Park Service, is how he explains them. “His enthusiasm for his work just kind of bubbles out,” he said.

Mr. Thomas did not set out to become an artist-cartographer. After high school, he worked in the kitchen of a politics-themed pub in Wellington, while performing as a gigging musician.

At 21, dreaming of rock stardom, he departed his homeland for two years of “high jinks” in North America.

The music career did not progress. But the continent’s stunning topography “supercharged” his childhood passion for geography, he said, and he began compulsively doodling maps. “I would go to sleep, just thinking about the way the Sierras turned into the Cascades,” he recalled, “or how vast the Mississippi Basin was.”

Two years later, working as a chef in Montreal, Mr. Thomas was at a personal and professional crossroads. “I still hadn’t gone to university or made any plan for a career,” he said. “I was quite worried at the time, like, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’”

On July, 28, 2023, the pandemic long over, Mr. Thomas added the last touches to his map: six final creatures, including a golden-breasted songbird, a bat weighing less than half an ounce, and a bristly arachnid. In the staple-bound log book where he had chronicled his work, he concluded, in a ballpoint-pen scrawl: “FINISH WILD WORLD!!!”

Since then, he has been in “small business mode,” preparing to ship copies of “Wild World” worldwide. But cartography — and the open trail — beckon, and for his next project, he hopes to combine the two.

For Mr. Patterson, the former Park Service cartographer, Mr. Thomas’s work stands alone — done entirely by hand without digital backups or erase tools and with a level of detail that inspires the viewer to place their nose ever closer to the page.

Is any other mapmaker doing anything similar? Mr. Patterson paused momentarily. “No,” he said.

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