Russel Friedman, Founding Partner of Wilderness Safaris and Chair of the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, died from a heart attack on Sunday morning, February 4, while mountain biking on the outskirts of Johannesburg with friends.

“He will be enormously missed, not only by his family (wife Bonnie and daughter Gabi), but by many in the vulture conservation community, the book dealer and publishing world, the cycling fraternity and of course, several generations of Wilderness Safaris employees who he mentored and guided – always with the best and most generous intentions,” read a statement by Wilderness Safaris.

“It is with deep sadness and regret that we share this news with you, but also with deep gratitude that we remember Russel and the role he played in our lives and the life of the company,” says Keith Vincent, Wilderness Safaris CEO. “His love of life, passion for conservation and his immense integrity will be missed by all who knew him.”

Back in the 1970s, Friedman had been instrumental in founding the Vulture Study Group (VSG) and pioneering a change in attitude to these birds (hence his nickname ‘Vulcha’).

By the early 1980s, he was running the country’s most influential natural history book dealer and publisher. He supplied the other two founding partners of Wilderness Safaris, Colin Bell and Chris MacIntyre, with guide books and other materials for their overland safaris into Botswana and Zimbabwe from Johannesburg.

Bell recalls the first time he met Friedman, 45 years ago in 1973. “I was a young, second-year varsity student and we were roped in (pun intended) by Russel, Peter Munday, Steven Piper and John Ledger to climb the cliffs of the Magaliesberg. Our job was to ring and tag any newly fledged Cape vulture chicks on some of the highest cliffs in the land. This was part of a pioneering study to collect data to find out why the numbers of Cape vultures were plummeting. In those days, climbing sheer, slippery cliffs and attaching light, multi-coloured rings to the legs of newly born vultures was revolutionary. The plan was that anyone could identify the coloured rings from afar and feed back the information of the location of that individual to the VSG.

“The information gathered by this NGO and its ground-breaking studies helped to work out their migration patterns and understand the reasons behind their increasingly brittle bones that were causing fatalities. This led to the creation of vulture restaurants that brought more calcium into their diets and ultimately to their conservation. Russel was one of the main data-capturing folks below the cliffs during those days and was very much part of the heart of this pioneering NGO that certainly made its mark on science in those days and helped preserve and celebrate a bird that, up until then, had little perceived conservation value. The VSG is still going strong today as was Russel’s passion for everything to do with helping to preserve this part of the planet as best we can,” adds Bell.

Friedman joined Wilderness Safaris shortly after it was formed, quickly making a substantial impact not only with his conservation ethos, but also his considerable business acumen. As the longest-serving co-founder with some 34 years of passionate commitment, Friedman was an integral part of Wilderness Safaris. As the Founder and Chair of the Wilderness Trust, and later Children in the Wilderness as well, he was often the company’s conscience in the areas of ethics, community and conservation.

“Fondly known as ‘Papa Smurf’, Russel was also a brilliant photographer and the driver of the Tour de Wilderness mountain bike events, raising funds for Children in the Wilderness and the Trust and making an incredible contribution to the empowerment of Africa’s people and the protection of its wilderness areas,” continued the statement.

The day prior to his passing, Friedman was in the Cradle Nature Reserve with tour guide, Howard Geach. In a Facebook post shared prior to the tragic news, Geach said: “En-route from Gladysvale Cave to the Malapa dig, we came across a small group of eland. As they trotted up the hillside we saw about 100 endangered Cape vultures on a carcass, about 25% of the entire Magaliesberg population. Silhouetted on the ridge, they looked like dolomitic gargoyles on the walls of a great cathedral – its spire a column of vultures rising into the African sky.”

A photo of these vultures was the last Friedman shared on Facebook. A fitting send-off to a man who devoted so much of his life to vulture conservation and ecotourism throughout Africa. 

Wilderness Safaris will hold a memorial event for the trade at its offices in Rivonia on Thursday, February 8 at 12h00.