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Rosalie Watkins

Rosalie Watkins

Sir David Attenborough – Landmarks on our journey with Fauna & Flora's greatest ambassador

It is a well over four decades since the veteran broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough first became vice-president of Fauna & Flora and a mind-blowing six decades and counting since he originally enrolled as a member of our organisation – back in the days when we were known as the Fauna Preservation Society.

His long association with Fauna & Flora 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. In our view, any list of David Attenborough’s greatest achievements should include what he has done for this organisation, including his crucial contribution to one of Fauna & Flora’s most iconic success stories.

Of the various organisations that I am involved with, Fauna & Flora is one of the closest to my heart.

Sir David Attenborough OM FRS


Of the various organisations that I am involved with, Fauna & Flora is one of the closest to my heart.

Sir David Attenborough OM FRS


1926 – Life on Earth begins for David Attenborough

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 Fauna & Flora in its original guise. Kruger is opened to the public the following year.

Today, around one million visitors pass through its gates annually.

One of Kruger National Park's famous tuskers. © Anthony Hall-Martin

© Anthony Hall-Martin

Archive image of one of Kruger National Park's famous 'tuskers'.

1933 – Plant roots: Attenborough and Welwitschia 

Fascinated by fossils and nature, Attenborough embarks on what will turn out to be the lifelong pursuit of a schoolboy’s hobby – looking at the natural world and trying to understand it.  

The London Convention, chaired by Fauna & Flora president Lord Onslow, spawns the first global wildlife conservation treaty, providing a blueprint for future wildlife conservation agreements throughout the world. It is the first such agreement to grant international protection to a named plant species, the weird and wonderful Welwitschia, native to Namibia.  

Some six decades later, Welwitschia features prominently in Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants, broadcast in 1995.

Welwitschia. © Nicky Jenner

© Nicky Jenner

Welwitschia, a bizarre desert plant endemic to Namibia.

1959 – Attenborough joins Fauna & Flora

After being introduced to our seminal conservation journal, Oryx, during the making of his first major TV series, Zoo Quest, David Attenborough becomes a card-carrying member of the organisation now known as Fauna & Flora.

“Oryx was the only journal in the world that dealt scientifically with the problem of disappearing species. I had a degree in zoology and was very interested in Oryx, not necessarily because I recognised the danger of species losses at the time, but because here was a journal that described how elephant populations changed; what elephants did. Where other publications looked at animals in captivity, this journal looked at animals in the wild. And that was what I was interested in.”

Fauna & Flora 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, Fauna & Flora 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.

Operation Noah - Rhino relocation. © Dr Toni Harthoorn / Fauna & Flora

© Dr Toni Harthoorn / Fauna & Flora

Rescuing a rhino from the rising waters of the new Kariba Dam as part of Operation Noah.

1979 – Attenborough and mountain gorillas

Following a personal plea from David Attenborough, Fauna & Flora 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, which the broadcaster had encountered during the course of filming his acclaimed Life on Earth series.

“By this time, I’d been a member of Fauna & Flora for 20 years, so I went to John Burton, who was then director, and asked him what we could do. And there and then Fauna & Flora set up a fund to raise money and made a plan as to how the gorillas could be protected.”

Shortly after returning to the UK, David Attenborough is elected as a vice-president of Fauna & Flora, 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 Fauna & Flora’s intervention to over 1,000 today – virtually a fourfold increase.

Mountain gorilla. © Joan Pablo Moreiras

© Juan Pablo Moreiras / Fauna & Flora

Female mountain gorilla with baby in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

2003 – Sir David voices Fauna & Flora’s Centenary Appeal

Fauna & Flora 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 a Fauna & Flora 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 Fauna & Flora.

Fauna & Flora Centenary dinner. © Gill Shaw / Fauna & Flora

© Gill Shaw / Fauna & Flora

Fauna & Flora Centenary dinner, 2003.

 2015 – Sir David shines the spotlight on Fauna & Flora

As guest of honour at Fauna & Flora’s AGM, Sir David takes to the stage alongside Fauna & Flora’s Chief Executive in a packed auditorium at London’s Royal Geographical Society for a question-and-answer session with a difference.

Shunning the spotlight, Sir David invites Mark Rose to lead the audience on a whistle-stop tour through some of Fauna & Flora’s most iconic campaigns and success stories, interspersed with reminiscences about their shared experiences in conservation.

Sir David Attenborough discussing mountain gorillas with Fauna & Flora's then CEO, Mark Rose.

2019 – Sir David speaks out on plastic pollution

Sixty years after taking out Fauna & Flora 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 Fauna & Flora, that reveals the devastating effects of plastic waste.  


Plastic waste on lake shore. © Stéphane Bidouze / AdobeStock

© Stéphane Bidouze / AdobeStock

Plastic waste on lake shore.

2020 – Sir David endorses Fauna & Flora’s Our One Home campaign

An emotional appeal from Sir David marks the launch of Fauna & Flora’s Our One Home campaign.

On the eve of the pivotal UN Summit on Biodiversity, the campaign urged governments and businesses to invest massively in the local communities and organisations working on the front line of conservation.

An open letter addressed to UN Secretary-General António Guterres – signed by over 150 conservation groups from more than 50 countries worldwide – called on member states to collectively commit an initial $500 billion in funding, rising year on year, to protect the natural world.

An emotional appeal from Sir David marks the launch of Fauna & Flora’s Our One Home campaign

2022 – New portrait of Sir David donated to Fauna & Flora

Painted by Rosalie Watkins to mark Sir David’s extroadinary contribution to conservation and to serve in memory of Duncan Stewart, a young narutalist inspired by Sir David’s example, the portrait was donated by philanthropist and Fauna & Flora trustee Kim Stewart.

It now takes pride of place outside Fauna & Flora’s office in the building that bears Sir David’s name.

Sir David Attenborough and his daughter Susan with the Stewart family. © Chris Loades / Fauna & Flora

© Chris Loades / Fauna & Flora

Sir David Attenborough and his daughter Susan (left) pictured with the Stewart family.

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 Fauna & Flora 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 Fauna & Flora’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. Fauna & Flora staff past and present frequently cite Attenborough and his peerless nature documentaries as the main catalyst for their choice of career, and that’s surely the ultimate tribute.

Portrait of a female mountain gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

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Portrait of a female mountain gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI