Richard Despard Estes

December 26, 1927 ~ December 6, 2021 (age 93)


Richard Despard Estes, 93, of Peterborough, passed away peacefully on December 6, 2021 at his home in Peterborough, NH, surrounded by his family.  He was born in New York, NY on December 26, 1927, the son of Zenas Newton Estes and Margaret (Despard) Estes.

Richard attended Pomfret School in CT and graduated from Harvard University in 1950 after which he worked for Yankee Magazine (1951-1954). From an early age he was fascinated with animals, and after having seen a diorama of the African savanna at the American Museum of Natural History in New York at age 10, he dreamed of going to Africa. He did not wish to merely see animals, but to observe them and understand what they were doing. In pursuing his dreams to go to Africa, he first took a detour through Burma (now Myanmar) where he conducted a natural history survey from 1959-1960. Upon his return, he enrolled at Cornell University to begin his doctoral studies in ethology (the study of behavior), finally getting to Africa in 1962 to begin his dissertation research on the wildebeest of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. It was during this time that he met his wife Runhild Knapitsch. They married in Arusha, Tanzania in 1964 and continued their studies of African antelopes in Tanzania, Angola, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Kenya over the next 17 years, dividing their time between these countries and the US, chiefly the North Shore of Massachusetts and Berwyn, Pennsylvania. This stretch culminated in a two-and-a-half year period when the entire family lived in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, where Richard conducted his longest sustained research effort on the wildebeest and other plains antelope. Thereafter they settled in Peterborough in 1981, though Richard would continue research, teaching and guiding safaris in Tanzania until 2016, when he was 88 years old. 

Richard was the author of the Behavior Guide to African Mammals, The Safari Companion, and his magnum opus, the Gnu’s World, and was co-author of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife, as well as numerous scientific papers and reports. He also featured in A Certain Curve of Horn, by John Frederick Walker about the giant sable antelope of Angola that he and Runi studied, and The Magnificent Migration by dear friend Sy Montgomery, which chronicled both the Serengeti wildebeest migration and Sy and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s safari with Richard in 2016. He was the Curator of Mammals at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA (1974-1981), and an associate of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, The Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute, and the Antioch University New England graduate school. He was also incredibly proud to be a founding trustee and board member of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, where he has been instrumental in efforts to save the mountain bongo antelope from extinction. His commitment to antelope conservation and research was further evidenced as the founder and chairman/co-chairman of IUCN’s Antelope Specialist Group from 1978-2005, during which time he edited and published the Gnusletter. 

Aside from his love of African wildlife, Richard was also passionate about conservation in his New England home. Before starting his international adventures, he wrote Eastcoasting, a book (never published) about the natural history of the Atlantic coast. He was very active in trying to preserve the natural beauty of the Monadnock Region, being an active member of the Peterborough Conservation (1982-2005) and Heritage Commissions (2006-2018), and a founding and long-time member of the Monadnock Conservancy. 

Richard’s passion for the natural world combined with his notable generosity of spirit, which he used most effectively to help many young people get started in conservation. Richard was also a lover of music and performance, having sung with the Monadnock Chorus for many years, as well as Music on Norway Pond. He needed little encouragement to break into song at a social gathering or whenever the mood struck, and will be remembered for his wit and humor. He inspired and touched the lives of countless people over the course of his amazing life. 

Richard is survived by his wife Runhild Estes (without whom, he readily acknowledged, he would not have been able to have had such a rich and fulfilling life), daughter Anna Estes, son Lyndon Estes, daughter-in-law Laura Estes, and granddaughter Lehna Estes. A memorial service will be announced at a later date. 

Those wishing to make a donation in Richard's honor might consider The Rare Species Conservatory Foundation ( or the Harris Center's effort to protect land around Willard Pond (


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