Gil Child: recollections by John Burton, Founder and CEO of WLT 1989-2019
I first met Gil Child in 1975 at the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation and Natural Resources (IUCN) being held in Kinshasa, Zaire (as it was then known).
I had just become Assistant Secretary of the then Fauna Preservation Society (now FFI). It was the first time I had attended a really big international conference, and I was almost certainly the youngest delegate attending it. But I was very fortunate, as Gil Child was attending as one of the UN Observers (representing the Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO), where he worked in the forestry department (based in Rome).
As an observer, Gil was not involved in the lobbying and all the politicking that was going on, and over a beer one evening, he became my mentor, showing me how these big international conferences functioned, and also introducing me to many of the key figures of conservation. It was Gil’s generosity with his knowledge that made him unique, in addition to his overall kindness, which made him one of the quietest, but most respected conservationists.
Over the years, during my time as Executive Secretary of FFI, as well as representing IUCN at CITES Meetings, I would regularly meet with Gil, mostly at CITES conferences of the parties – he later became Head of Conservation within the Forestry Department of FAO, and attended CITES as an observer, and also at IWC meetings. And always, he was ever-generous in sharing his vast and well-travelled experiences.
Shortly after I left FFPS (flora having been added by 1987), Jerry Bertrand, together with Viv and myself launched Programme for Belize in UK, and this rapidly evolved into the World Land Trust, and a Board of Trustees was needed. Gill had recently returned to England, and I was delighted when he agreed to become a Trustee, and bring to the Trust his unique international knowledge and experience.
In the early days of the Trust, we did not have a Chairman, and in order to encourage promptness, the last Trustee to arrive at the meeting took the Chair – consequently I don’t recall Gil ever chairing a meeting – he was always so punctual. And throughout the many years that he was a Trustee, he became famous for his meticulous examination of all the agendas and minutes – we knew if Gil had no corrections, the minutes were OK. If there was any slip in interpretation or even spelling, he would spot it.
But advice with dealing with issues across international lines and diplomacy were his forte. I vividly recall early in the history of WLT’s largest project so far, a $1 million EU-funded forestry project, there was a crisis. It is so long ago I can’t remember the problem but I do remember Gil’s advice – get the next available flight and meet the EU Representative face to face. It seemed a rather expensive (not to say nowadays carbon-intensive) solution, but he was absolutely right. Face to face for a day, and we solved the problems, and I returned the next day.
To conclude my recollections, is an example of how small the world is. In the latter part of my time developing World Land Trust, we increasingly used videos, and were fortunate to find a video producer who lived nearby and was keen to support us. Claire Whittenbury became the mainstay of nearly all the videos shot, including with Sir David Attenborough. What we didn’t know at first, was that she was married to Gil Child’s nephew. She has added a brief sketch of his life:
“A life well lived”: Video producer Claire Whittenbury on Gil Child
‘Uncle’ Gil was a colossus in the world of conservation, but he was also a humble and gentle man who treated every person with respect and kindness. And he had a wicked sense of humour. My introduction to Gil, 25 years ago, was at a camp in woodland in Norfolk when the whole family was roused from their slumbers by the terrifying sound of a male lion prowling around the camp. He had really perfected that sound over his years in Africa.
Gil was born in 1932 in Arusha, Tanganyika now Tanzania. He was educated in the UK and studied Zoology and Botany at University of Reading. His conservation career spanned 35 years starting in 1957, when he returned to East Africa and joined the Tanganyika Game Dept. initially in Kenya and then subsequently Tanganyika. He worked across several game ranges including the now Tsavo, Masai Mara, Serengeti and Lake Manyara National Parks.
In 1963 he was asked by the Chief Game Warden to help set up and support teaching local Africans to manage Wildlife Conservation across East Africa. He spent six dedicated years at Mweka’s College of African Wildlife based on the foothills of Kilimanjaro. Whilst a large amount of the time was spent educating the students particularly in Zoology and Park management, Gil encouraged his students to experience the practical side of their roles and get outside into the field as much as possible. His students loved his zest for life and his humour. One student remarked on his bewilderment at Gil’s ability to speak Kiswahili fluently but not only that, he spoke it like a native – much to the amusement of the Maasai tribesmen! Above all the protection of wild animals and the environment was at the heart of his life’s ambition.
In 1970, Gil left East Africa and joined the Food and Agricultural Organization (F.A.O) – encouraged by his father, Stanley Child (a Vet who had worked in East Africa in Animal management with FAO for many years himself in the 1930s); to support projects across the West African rainforests/savannah regions. Initially his time was spent in the Kainji region of Nigeria helping with the ecological studies of places like the Borgu Game Reserve and supporting staff and students at the University of Ibadan. He then moved to Accra in Ghana performing a similar role around the Akasombo/Volta and Shai Game Reserve.
In 1973 Gil secured a promotion as the Senior Wildlife Officer (Wildlife and Protected Area Management) to the FAO headquarters’ in Rome, Italy. Here he spent the last 20 years of his career working closely with wildlife conservation and preserving ecosystems around the world. He attended conferences, seminars and meetings throughout the world – often speaking but always happiest when back in the field. His engagements took him to Outer Mongolia; Venezuela; Nepal; Belize; Madagascar and of course throughout the continent of Africa – in fact there is arguably a place on Earth that he did not visit. He retired from FAO in 1992.
Despite retirement, Gil continued to do consultancy for FAO and other organisations. The World Land Trust was a favourite and he worked closely with the Living Rainforest group locally to where he lived.
Outside of work, he continued to travel all over the world with his wife Eddie and often accompanied by family and friends. The Okavango, Botswana and the Galapagos Islands were two he shared with Pete and Mimi Merttens and were often spoken about just before he died. Other trips took him to Australia/New Zealand, to the Pacific Islands, across Latin America and throughout Europe and the Middle East. He even went to Albania to study the Albanian bear!
“A life well lived”.