John Knowles founded Marwell Zoo out of his dream to create Britain’s first zoological collection specifically for the breeding of endangered animal species. On 29 September 1969 he purchased Marwell Hall and the surrounding 417 acres of land. Despite difficulties with planning permission and the complications of transporting animals, he remained determined to open Marwell as a zoo and it officially opened to the public on 22 May 1972.
Within a few years Marwell became an important breeding centre for several endangered species. Some of the first animals to be housed in the park were the Przewalski’s horses, scimitar-horned oryx, and Grevy’s zebra. John Knowles’ plan was to specialise initially on the breeding of rarer species of hoofstock and larger cats, as well as maintaining a fairly comprehensive collection as a public exhibit. Characteristically determined, when he mentioned his plans to keep zebra, oryx and ostrich together in the same paddock, he was told it would be ‘impossible’. However, he persevered with his dream of seeing large mixed groups of animals grazing together, and his mixed paddocks proved a success. Perhaps more importantly, but in the same pioneering spirit, he prepared the way for zoo-conservation consortia, his energy and tenacity contributing to the establishment of co-operative breeding programmes in Europe, a concept which is now central to modern-day captive breeding. He also led like-minded institutions to form conservation organisations like the Madagascar Fauna Group and the International Rhino Foundation.
In 1974 Marwell Zoological Park became a registered charity, and four years later in March 1978 Marwell Preservation Trust Ltd was created. John transferred the zoo, neighbouring undeveloped land and his former home, Marwell Hall, to the charity he had created. This generous move bought security for the future of the zoological park, and brought together both Marwell’s animal breeding and the increasing levels of conservation and educational work it was now undertaking as a single conservation charity.
Marwell Wildlife’s Chief Executive, James Cretney, has paid tribute to Dr Knowles and his contribution to conservation. He said: “John Knowles was a great innovator. His pioneering approach in the 1970’s did much to change the outlook and perception of the sector. He implemented many changes to the operations of zoos and conservation, and we have a lot to thank him for. Our deepest sympathies go out to Dr Knowles’ family”.
John’s work took him all over the world as an ambassador for many animals and organisations. In 1991 he was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours’ List for his services to conservation, and he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Southampton for his work in 2001.
In 1997 John founded the Marwell Zimbabwe Trust (now Dambari Wildlife), a non-profit biodiversity conservation NGO, with whom Marwell still works closely. And after serving on Marwell’s Board as a Trustee and Director Emeritus for 8 years, having previously retired as Zoo Director in 1998, he retired from Marwell fully in 2006.
Marwell Wildlife still seeks to address causes of extinction and tries to manage populations of vulnerable species to ensure their survival. This is achieved through a range of habitat and species conservation programmes, both locally through Marwell’s base in southern England and internationally, with a particular focus in Africa.
Dr John Knowles OBE passed away on Saturday 2 November 2019, after a short illness.