William Gray meets, world-renowned artist and founder of one of Britains most popular conservation charities, David Shepherd OBE. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF), recently voted in a BBC poll as one of Britain's most effective and popular conservation charities. William Gray met its founder, world-renowned artist David Shepherd OBE, who first travelled to Africa in 1949 determined to be a game warden.
What happened to David Shepherd, the game warden?
I had this romantic notion that I was God's gift to Kenya's national parks. Of course, when I turned up in Nairobi, they said, ‘No thanks.' But I did get to see my first elephants down at Amboseli.
How did you become a professional artist?
I was very lucky to be trained in London during the early 1950s by the artist Robin Goodwin. I had no talent. I was a challenge for him. Robin probably thought, "Anyone who paints that badly I've just got to train."
Do you remember the first elephant painting you ever sold?
It was in 1960 that I became a wildlife artist. I had been invited to paint for the RAF in Aden and then Kenya. But they didn't want pictures of planes and asked if I could paint something local instead. So I did my first elephant painting for them and charged £25, including the frame.
Is the African elephant your favourite animal?
Yes, it has to be. I owe so much of my success to elephants. I also love rhinos. And tigers. They're all part of the intricate balance of nature which we've messed up. We have this arrogant assumption that this is our world and we can do what we like with it. We are the most dangerous animal on the planet.
Was there a defining moment in your life that made you a conservationist as much as an artist?
When I finished my work with the RAF I went down to the Serengeti where, one morning, we found 255 dead zebra around a waterhole that had been poisoned by a poacher.
How did the DSWF come about?
People told me I had this amazing ability to raise large amounts of money for wildlife without doing anything. What they meant was, I was painting anyway, seven days a week, so why not start your own charity? Raising money for conservation is a way of repaying the great debt I owe to wildlife.
Over £3 million has been donated to conservation projects worldwide through the DSWF. The Mountain Zebra National Park project in South Africa must rank as one of the most successful. It was an amazing achievement. In 1990 we raised funds to rescue Shibula, a Black rhino incarcerated in Lisbon Zoo, and return her to the wild - to an area where this species had been absent for over 150 years. We've trebled the size of the national park and established a breeding population, giving rhino conservation in South Africa much needed hope. Shibula is now 20 years old - like the Foundation - and has produced five calves.
Your work must be marked by moments of immense satisfaction as well as periods of deep despair and frustration.
Exactly. There were probably five million African elephants when I was born in 1931. Now there are around 500,000. It's frightening. But we have to remember the success stories. Take the little girl, for example, who rode across England and sent us a cheque with a note saying, "This is for the jumbos you love so much." Children nowadays are aware and determined. They know about elephants walking along on three legs after treading on a land mine.
Are there any African animals that you don't feel inspired to paint?
I've never been asked to paint an aardvark or a Honey badger. I've painted a Bat-eared fox and I adore warthogs. My subject matter is largely determined by the market. I'm very lucky to have a long back-list of orders. I know exactly what I'm going to be painting for the next 18 months.
Which is your favourite place in Africa?
South Luangwa in Zambia. That's where my kids got the conservation bug. I took the four girls there when they were teenagers. They fell in love with the wildlife. It was better than taking them to build sand castles in Kent which is what I did in the 1930s. Another favourite is Savute, where you can get right up to the elephants.
Where will you go next in Africa?
In November I'll be in South Africa where we'll be running one of my steam engines. Why my wife is still married to me I don't know, because I have this awful habit of collecting large toys. I've got a 50-year-old London double-decker bus and I bought Black Prince, a steam engine which weighs 140 tons, from British Rail back in 1967. The one in South Africa will haul tourist trains on a line in Natal. The ultimate aim is to run tourist steam trains for fundraising. Raising money for wildlife with a steam train. That's me. That sums up my mad life!
The Art of Conservation Slim on administration but generous on funding, The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) supports projects in Africa and Asia to save critically endangered mammals in the wild and benefit the rural people who share their environment. A full 100% of donations marked for specific projects goes directly to the field with no administrative costs deducted. In its first 20 years, the DSWF has achieved many successes, such as raising £100,000 to fund Zambia's elephant conservation programme - culminating in the burning of the country's ivory stockpile. Other ongoing African projects include wild dog monitoring and anti-poaching work in Zimbabwe, rhino and desert elephant conservation in Namibia, and the funding of Africa's first cross-border task force engaged in the fight against wildlife crime. In Asia, the DSWF has played a significant role in saving the Siberian tiger from extinction and also supports several major and innovative projects to help local people in India safeguard their tigers and rhinos. www.davidshepherd.org
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation a special fundraising dinner will be held at London's Natural History Museum on 25 November 2004. The black tie event will culminate in an auction of special items, including a major elephant painting by David. Tickets cost £120 per person. For details, telephone 01483 272323 or email