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David Shepherd

Conservationist and wildlife artist for over 50 years

David Shepherd was a British artist, conservationist and founder of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, a conservation charity which funds projects across Africa and Asia, with a mission to protect the natural environment, engage local communities in wildlife conservation, and help tackle wildlife crime. A few of their many conservation achievements include establishing Zambia’s first Elephant Orphanage, the Pangolin Protection Programme in Zambia, and saving the Amur tiger from extinction through fighting uncontrolled poaching.

Originally starting as an aviation artist with the RAF, a turning point came when they flew David out to Kenya in the 1960s. It was here that he painted his very first wildlife painting, a rhino on the runway, and became interested in conservation when he came across over 150 dead zebra around a waterhole that had been poisoned by poachers. He established the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation in 1984 to fund vital wildlife conservation efforts, which has since donated over £7 million to projects across Africa and Asia. David Shepherd passed away in 2017.

David Sketching

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Interview with David Shepherd

Do you have a single most influential or defining moment when you knew that you wanted become a conservationist?

Yes. The RAF flew me to Kenya in the 1960s. Bored with paintings of aeroplanes I was asked instead to paint something different. I painted a rhino on the runway; it was my first wildlife painting.

In 1984 you established the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF), what was the motivation behind this?

From that moment in Kenya I began my life as a wildlife artist and a conservationist. And, as sales and commissions picked up I started to donate my work to raise funds for wildlife conservation through a variety of NGOs and initiatives. In the 1970s, for example, I teamed up with Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger and my painting Tiger Fire raised over £130,000 to help protect India’s beleaguered tiger population – then estimated to be as few as 1,200. In 1984, I decided to launch my own foundation and, with the support of my family and my daughter Melanie, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation was born. It is my way of giving something back to the animals that I love and that helped make me a successful wildlife artist. Art still forms the beating heart of our fundraising.

How can we change local attitudes towards nature?

Education is key. Our funding of education programmes across Africa and Asia and in the UK help develop a real sense of the importance of the wild world as an intrinsic part of our existence. We engage local communities in finding long-term, sustainable solutions to protect their native wildlife and support alternative income generation schemes to keep people from poaching.

What have been the biggest success stories for the DSWF to date?

Conservation successes are hard won but I’m hugely proud of what we have achieved. Among our successes are:

  • DSWF was pivotal at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) 2016, in bringing about decisions to end any future process for the trade in ivory. The same conference saw DSWF playing an instrumental role in bringing together countries on agreed text regarding the closure of domestic ivory markets.
  • DSWF funding established the first ever Pangolin Protection Programme in Zambia to rescue and release pangolins as part of a targeted countrywide anti-trafficking and awareness campaign.
  • DSWF co-fund the first Aerial Support Unit for the Kafue National Park in Zambia. The ‘Eyes in the Skies’ capability provides a vital deterrent and disrupts known poaching routes in a key species protection habitat.
  • Establishing Zambia’s first Elephant Orphanage to rescue, rehabilitate and release the innocent victims of ivory poaching.
  • Helping secure Uganda’s Murchison Falls Conservation Area from poaching. By injecting vital funding we have been able help elephant populations recover from almost near extinction. Populations now exceed over 1,000 elephants, often seen in large healthy herds roaming wild.
  • Helping to educate over 10,000 children in Zimbabwe through interactive, engaging and intuitive conservation programmes to provide a fuller understanding of the importance of conserving wildlife and its habitat.
  • Providing over 20 years of vital funding and support to ensure the survival of one of the last truly wild black rhino populations in Namibia, enabling populations to emerge from the brink of extinction.
  • Working to fund undercover investigations exposing the cross boarder trafficking routes and criminal syndicates behind some of the largest and most prolific wildlife crime families in the world.
  • Saving the Amur Tiger from certain extinction in the 1990s. As part of an international coalition DSWF successfully cracked down on uncontrolled poaching and raised awareness among the international community. Today there is a healthy and sustainable population of more than c.450 wild tigers in the Russian Far East.
  • Helping to establish a hugely successful community defence force in Assam, India. By inspiring and engaging local communities they have volunteered themselves as the first line of defence at the UNESCO world heritage site to protect their native wildlife.
  • Building capacity in Tost Nature Reserve, Mongolia, through use of scientific data on snow leopards, empowering local communities to successfully apply for protected area status creating one of the largest continuous Snow Leopard habitats in the world.
  • Engaging with the Kyrgyzstan Government and a local NGO to re-wild a former hunting concession allowing for the safe development of the 4th most significant snow leopard habitat in the world as a protected natural area.
  • Establishing the two leading art events in the conservation calendar. Global Canvas, a youth and schools art competition and Wildlife Artist of the Year, the UK’s premier wildlife art competition. Both combine art and conservation with stunning results, helping raise awareness and vital funds for species protection through the beautiful and creative medium of art.

What are the biggest challenges faced by DSWF as a charity and how do you overcome them?

We understand that wildlife is not at the top of everyone’s giving list – it can be difficult for people to relate to wild elephants, rhinos, tigers … they are not part of people’s normal, everyday life experiences. But, there is a wider and growing realization that this beautiful world of ours will not survive if we continue to plunder its natural resources by destroying swathes of forests and wild spaces, polluting it and driving wildlife to extinction.

Our education programmes in the UK and overseas provide us with amazing and positive feedback from children and their teachers.

The other huge challenge to wildlife survival is the illegal trade in wildlife and that’s why we work so hard both at a grass roots level; by training and equipping anti-poaching and park protection teams, and on the world stage by campaigning for the closure of domestic ivory markets and the end of the trade in tiger parts. The message that saving wildlife saves us all is vital and it’s one that I think young people are really beginning to take to their hearts.

Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?

Of course. It is only through collective efforts that we can drive change. From careful consideration of what we consume – from the food we eat and the items we buy – to providing financial and physical support for conservation (by donating or volunteering) we can all help to make a difference. Being optimistic about the successes we can collectively create is vital too.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

There have been so many! As an artist working in the field my experience of wildlife and the natural world has been a cornerstone of my existence. Sitting with the wild elephants at Savuti in Botswana as they dust bathed in the setting sun was unforgettable.

Who is your personal Natural World Hero and why?

Like many, I admire David Attenborough for introducing so many people to the natural world through film and television. Education is at the heart of protecting the natural world.

Where is your dream natural world destination that you haven’t visited yet but would like to?

Antarctica. One of my daughters went with her family last year and the experience and photographs they shared when they came home was magical.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

The natural world is too precious and too beautiful to lose. Without wildlife and wild spaces the world would be a bleak place. We must protect it.