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Sunday, 7 October 2012

A moment with the godfather of wildlife conservation

By Andrew Mulenga

At a glance, one would assume that David Shepherd is the archetypal, toffee-nosed Englishman who can be polite even when being rude and must therefore be approached with caution and much rehearsal.

David Shepherd at the Zebra Crossing Cafe in
Lusaka with 'Luangwa', the painting he auctioned
to raise funds for Game Rangers International
On the contrary, he is a cheerful and good-humoured chap who is quick with a joke and ends almost every other sentence with a buoyant cackle. The world famous British painter and one of the world's most outspoken conservationists who has been bent on saving the planet long before ‘environment’ became the new HIV/AIDS with regards a global focus, was in the country for his annual elephant week events.

This year, he was here to raise funds for the Lilayi Elephant Nursery, officially opened by Dr Guy Scott last week, a joint project between his David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and Zambian charity Game Rangers International.

Nevertheless, a chat with Shepherd reveals that once you get him started about things in which he is passionate, you get more than you bargained for.

I’ve been coming to Zambia every year since 1964; it’s my favourite country apart from my own. I always feel like I’m coming home,” he says with a broad smile.

He then goes on to reveal how his whole painting career took off and how he almost by default became a conservationist through happy chance and good fortune.

“Well back in 1960, two things happened, before you were born, before most people were born,” he says bursting in to a chortle “It was through the Royal Air Force actually, I had never been in the air force, but they started flying me around the world as their guest because they wanted pictures and they would show me what it is they wanted painted.”

He was noticed by the RAF because he used to frequent Heathrow Airport with his easel and canvases to make paintings of aeroplanes in the 50s when he was merely in his early 20s.

Independence Day Eve, 1964 (oil on canvas)
by David Shepherd - Lusaka National Museum
“So I received an invitation to go out to Kenya with them, because at the time the RAF was in Nairobi. While in Kenya they asked me if I paint animals, because they had 25 pounds to spare,” he says "I said no, I’ve never even painted a hamster or a gerbil, and they said ‘but that’s what we want, we want some wildlife paintings’, so the RAF commissioned my very first wildlife painting and from that point I was so lucky and never looked back, my life changed from that moment, I started painting wildlife, I’m so proud to say that, so lucky.”

Installation of the president, 1964 (oil on canvas)
by David Shepherd - Lusaka National Museum
He says the other thing that happened while in Kenya was that he joined the game wardens with his wife, and while driving around the Serengeti they saw an incredible amount of vultures flying around and as they went for a closer look they found over 200 Zebra lying dead on the ground, poisoned by poachers who had poured battery acid into the watering hole.

“Now I’m a very passionate man, and I’m very emotional. I was so incensed when I saw this kind of thing it just sickened me to see that man can do this kind of thing to his fellow creatures; we are the most stupid animal alive,” he says  “I then thought I should do something about it and put something back. I was now earning a very good living through painting wildlife. The first painting I did for charity raised about 200 pounds but its some thirty years ago that I started the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and that has been going on remarkably well.”

The older he gets the more Shepherd realises how catastrophic we are on this planet and a man who made him realise this even more was the astronaut Neil Armstrong, who died a few months ago. Shepherd met Armstrong at a dinner party in Denver, Colorado where the first man on the moon was the guest speaker.

“I was introduced to him as a conservationist. He had no Idea who I was but it sparked an interest in him when he was told what I do. So he asked me ‘David you are a conservationist? I am too; you have to be if you’ve been to the moon and back’. Then he started describing how it was on his way back from the moon in his space capsule looking through the window at planet earth,” he explains “It was riveting to listen to this man. He (Armstrong) said he suddenly realised that man, the most dangerous animal on the planet is raping it, not just exterminating rhinos and tigers its everything, because they are all interdependent.”

Shepherd returns to talk about his wildlife foundation, explaining that it concentrates on the animals he paints, elephants, rhinos and tigers all on the brink of extinction. He says there are some marvellous success stories and that conservation in his vast experience has its high points because of some achievements or low points of utter despair because you wonder how far we are from destroying the planet.  He says it is a bit of both, 50-50.

“The tragic part is… and I can openly criticize them in any media, its South Africa’s attitude towards the black rhino.  They are not doing a damn thing to save the black rhino; two a day are now being slaughtered by poachers. The Chinese are flying helicopters to catch the last few, what the hell are the damn government in South Africa doing about it, nothing, it’s absolutely shameful,” he says, visibly infuriated and now at the very edge of his seat.

“But anyway like I said there are some success stories here in Zambia. The Elephant Orphanage project just blows your mind; it is the only other elephant orphanage in Africa. The latest development is very exciting; we have a transit camp here in Lusaka, a holding station for baby elephants before they are taken to the main orphanage in the Kafue National park. I was down there this morning all twelve of them were playing its pure magic,” he says.

Shepherd first came to Zambia on account of first republican president Dr Kenneth Kaunda, to immortalize the transition from British colonial rule in two paintings.

“I was commissioned by KK to paint the celebrations. I’ll never forget it, on the night of the event when the union flag goes down which it always does and another one comes up,” he says, again bursting into laughter “At that moment we were in the middle of the stadium with KK, the last British governor and a cameraman, so I did two paintings for independence they must be hanging somewhere I’m not quite sure”

The paintings in question are currently locked away in the vault at the Lusaka national museum and rightfully so because the museum does not have a security system that can safeguard these highly sought after paintings. So until a time that the museum will have closed circuit television (CCTV) and other security features it is a wise decision to have them locked away. Fortunately, the author had a chance to photograph them, and it must be noted that the works still are in pristine condition as if they were just painted. There was in fact an incidence in Livingstone where a painting was sliced off its frame with a razor while no one was looking

Nevertheless, Shepherd and KK have been friends ever since. He was later commissioned by Anglo American to paint a portrait of KK, but as president, Kaunda was always busy and the only time he managed was when he was in Mfuwe on holiday once.

Outside wildlife, Shepherd has a very unusual passion, hobby and pastime. When asked about it, you can visibly see him shed off decades from his 81 year old self with his boyish gestures.

“Oh dear, oh dear, that question just had to come. Well my two passions are steam trains and wildlife. In 1967, I had a very successful exhibition in new York then when I got back to the UK I bought a steam engine for three thousand pounds which I called my fifth daughter, it’s a very emotional thing, my wife and I have four girls, so she is the fifth,” he says again spurting out a giggle “it’s a very emotional thing a steam engine is the closest machine to a human because it responds to the way you treat it.”

The fifth daughter he refers to is called Black Prince, (not princess) but she is not the only train Shepherd owns, one of them is in Livingstone.

“When I painted KK in Luangwa I asked him if I could have one of the trains that were just rotting away in Mulobezi, but then he gave me two, one of them is in a museum in England and the other we will be riding in Livingstone tomorrow” says Shepherd. In conclusion, he says he has been told he is the only white Zambian living in London and he is proud of that, he is considered by many, the godfather of conservation.

And Talja Parkinson, general manager at Game Rangers International says as usual Shepherd’s trip was a success and that they managed to beat their K250million target to raise funds for a vehicle to assist with their educational outreach programme. Shepherd auctioned a single painting that raised half the amount, while the remainder was raised through the annual Art for Wildlife Competition which ran alongside a children’s art competition in line with Shepherd’s Global Canvas art initiative.

1 comment:

  1. For some unknown reason,I have always thought Mr Shepherd was a 'son of the soil.'I have always put him among the likes of Mrs Zukas and such other folks.
    That such a great artist has his roots so deeply embedded in our relatively young artistic history is gratifying. Mr Shephered has run his race, he has certainly made his mark as an artist and conservationist. He demonstrates that indomitable will to use his talent for a worthwhile cause as we only stand akimbo and admire.What a huge inspiration he is.