Fauna & Flora International (FFI) was founded 116 years ago today, but this year’s birthday celebrations coincide with another auspicious anniversary – a double one, in fact. It is a full four decades since the veteran broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough was first elected as a vice-president of FFI – and a mind-blowing 60 years since he originally enrolled as a member of our organisation.

His long association with FFI may not feature anywhere among the myriad responsibilities, achievements and other biographical information enumerated in his Wikipedia profile, but from our perspective the relationship has been hugely significant.

We couldn’t pass up this opportunity to look back at our respective timelines and highlight a few of the major milestones on that remarkable joint journey, including some of our shared history.

1926: Birth and rebirth

David Frederick Attenborough is born in Isleworth, Middlesex. That very same year, Sabi Game Reserve in South Africa is reborn as Kruger National Park, thanks largely to the vision and single-minded determination of its first warden, Major James Stevenson-Hamilton, founder member and twice honorary secretary of FFI (originally known as the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire). Kruger is opened to the public the following year. Today, around one million visitors pass through its gates annually.

One of Kruger’s impressive tuskers in his prime. Credit: Anthony Hall-Martin

1959: Here comes the flood

David Attenborough becomes a card-carrying member of FFI, which by then has changed its name to the slightly more user-friendly Fauna Preservation Society. FFI launches Operation Noah to help avert ecological disaster following construction of a massive hydroelectric dam on the Zambezi River. This will leave the vast Kariba Gorge completely flooded, displacing 50,000 people and threatening the survival of marooned megafauna and other animals. Using funds raised by a public appeal, FFI embarks on a rescue mission, and wins the race against time to save the stranded wildlife – including irascible rhinos – from the rising waters of the new Lake Kariba.

Rolling a sedated rhino onto a makeshaft raft during Operation Noah. Credit: Dr Toni Harthoorn

1979: Closer ties

Following a personal plea from David Attenborough, FFI establishes the Mountain Gorilla Project using funds generated by its hugely successful appeal, launched the previous year to protect the dwindling population of these iconic great apes that the broadcaster had encountered during the course of filming his acclaimed Life on Earth series. Shortly after returning to the UK, David Attenborough is elected as a vice-president of FFI, a position that he holds to this day. The mountain gorilla population has risen from an estimated low of 250-300 individuals at the time of FFI’s intervention to over 1,000 today – virtually a fourfold increase.

Baby mountain gorilla, symbol of the renaissance of this once critically endangered great ape. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

2003: One hundred years of solicitude

FFI marks a century of conservation achievement with a commemorative dinner at London’s Natural History Museum, scene of its inaugural meeting in December 1903. The celebrations are joined via satellite link by Sir David, who is guest of honour at an FFI fundraising lunch held simultaneously in Los Angeles; he narrates a Centenary Appeal film, screened for the first time that day, and voices a BBC Lifeline charity appeal broadcast on national television in aid of FFI.

Centenary dinner table setting. Credit: Gill Shaw

2019: Front-page news

Sixty years after taking out FFI membership, and writing as our vice-president, Sir David pens a commentary in The Daily Telegraph – under the headline ‘Every corner of our planet is tainted. Humanity must act.’ – in which he urges governments, companies and citizens to take collective action ‘not only for the health of our planet, but for the well-being of people around the world.’ The open letter is in response to a shocking report, co-authored by FFI, that reveals the devastating effects of plastic waste.

Plastic waste on lake shore. Credit: Stéphane Bidouze/AdobeStock

Let me count the ways

In normal circumstances, describing someone as a great ambassador for an organisation might reasonably be considered a fitting accolade. In this case, it doesn’t begin to do justice to how FFI has benefited – not least in terms of scientific credibility and popular appeal – from its close ties with a conservation legend.

Despite a schedule of commitments that would leave ordinary mortals reaching for the smelling salts, Sir David has consistently made time to endorse FFI’s work, provide moral support, and help promote our events, campaigns and activities. He is also a source of inspiration to everyone associated with the organisation. FFI staff past and present frequently cite him as the main catalyst for their choice of career, and that’s surely the ultimate tribute. Happy double anniversary, Sir David. And happy birthday to us.

This blog includes edited extracts from With Honourable Intent, the comprehensive history of FFI. There’s still time to order a copy, or several, if you’re looking for a present that will support our work and bring pleasure long after the festivities have ended. A book is for wildlife, not just for Christmas.