Simon King OBE, Hon FRPS, Hon FBNA

Doctor of Laws

Thursday 18 February 2016 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Gareth Jones

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

Simon King OBE will be known to many of you from his appearances on, and camera work in, natural history documentaries for television. He has pursued this passion for over 30 years. Simon’s biography spans from the local to the global. His father worked for the British Forces Broadcasting Service in Nairobi, then for the BBC in Bristol, and his mother worked in the music industry. Apparently Simon’s parents “make any story of everyday life turn into the most colourful adventure and with it send a young boy's imagination flying." This upbringing, and growing up in Africa, no doubt set the scene for Simon’s illustrious career.

Simon has strong local connections – he lives in Somerset, and he attended Henbury School in Bristol as a teenager. The West Country and Africa have formed the backdrop to many of Simon’s documentaries. Today Simon is President of the Avon Wildlife Trust, Patron of the Somerset Wildlife Trust, and until recently had served for five years as President of Britain’s Wildlife Trusts, He also holds positions in several other local conservation charities, and is involved with the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and is a Patron of the Tusk Trust promoting conservation in Africa.

Simon’s love of wildlife began in Africa, and as a child he wanted to become an elephant when he grew up! Like many naturalists, Simon’s passion for wildlife and conservation started early, and at the age of 13 he helped create a series of programmes called ‘Man and Boy’ aiming to promote wildlife and conservation to a wide audience. Subsequently Simon has been a leading figure in more than 100 natural history films as principal cameraman, director, producer and presenter. Many of these films are household names – Springwatch, Big Cat Diary, Planet Earth, African Cats (for Disney) and the Attenborough Life series. Simon’s filming of African wild cats has achieved international acclaim.

This prolific and high-quality output has led to Simon receiving many awards. These include four awards from the Royal Television Society, two BAFTAs (British Academy of Television Arts and Sciences), four Emmys (Academy of Television Arts and Sciences), the ZSL Thomson / Zoological Record Award (2007), the British Naturalist Association Peter Scott Memorial Award (2008) and The Royal Geographical Society Cherry Kearton Award (2009). Simon was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire, receiving his OBE in the 2010 New Year Honours for services to wildlife photography and conservation.

In addition to his broadcasting and film-making career Simon is also a skilful writer and has written forewords and scripts for films, including some for Sir David Attenborough. He has written three books including the autobiographical and honest Wild Life, also Wild Guide and Shetland Diaries. He also is on the advisory board of BBC Wildlife Magazine. Shetland Diaries involved Simon filming wildlife on the Islands with his wife Marguerite and his then two-year old daughter Savannah. I really enjoyed this series for its joy of mixing family life with the enjoyment of wildlife. Simon’s enthusiasm is contagious. A review in the Daily Telegraph stated ‘King mixes up his adjectives of approval so deftly that “beautiful!”, “superb!”, “awesome!”, “mind-boggling!”, “fabulous!” and “gorgeous!” follow each other with barely a repetition’. The Guardian commented ‘That man is so happy – what's his secret? Each day seems to be an enormous treat, everything he does and sees is an extraordinary privilege; just being alive is a joy’.

Adventures in the bush have met with their challenges, and Simon has faced them with stoicism. In 2007, a cheetah with rabies attacked Simon while he was filming in Kenya. The cheetah unfortunately died and Simon commented ‘It was desperately sad that such a beautiful animal should succumb to such a deadly virus.  I, meanwhile, am fine. Seven jabs later, I should be able to bathe in the rabies virus without being infected.’

Pressures on the planet are increasing as our population grows rapidly, and we have created dangerous changes to our climate and natural world at unprecedented rates and scales. As Simon says ‘We need the natural world for our own survival. With the inexorable and rapid rise in human populations and our insatiable appetite for resources, has come an unsustainable drain on the life support systems upon which we all depend. This is reflected in many global crises, but can be witnessed close to home in the catastrophic loss of wildlife and wild places’.

This recognition of threats to our natural heritage has prompted Simon to make positive changes. Recently he set up his own charity to help combat the loss of biodiversity and wild places - the ‘Simon King Wildlife Project’. The philosophy underpinning the charity is as follows – ‘to successfully halt the global degradation of the natural world, people must learn about, engage with, and care for wild creatures and wild places’.  Initially Simon installed a camera network in a ten acre plot called Wild Meadows so that anyone could view wildlife behaving in real time on the internet. This was a great success, and grew into the Simon King Wildlife Project, which aims to ‘turn the tide against the loss of natural habitats and begin a movement to reclaim more land for the natural world by converting degraded land into wild spaces that once again breathe life and hope back into our planet.’  

It is very fitting that Simon receives an honorary degree from the University of Bristol, a city that has played leading roles in making wildlife accessible to a large audience. Simon has played a pivotal role in this. He was an ambassador for Bristol 2015 – European Green Capital, and has worked at the internationally renowned BBC Natural History Unit here for many years.  Simon has been a great champion for conservation, and for conveying the wonders of the natural world to a wide audience both in front of, and behind the camera.

Mr Vice-Chancellor - I present to you Simon King as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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