THE innovator behind Marwell Zoo – one of Hampshire's most popular tourist attractions – has died after a short illness.

Dr John Knowles opened the attraction in Colden Common in 1972, specifically to breed endangered animal species.

He purchased Marwell Hall along with 417 acres of land, spending more than £1m to achieve his ambitions.

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."

Dr Knowles' work took him across the globe 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.

He also founded the Marwell Zimbabwe Trust – now known as Dambari Wildlife – a non-profit biodiversity conservation NGO

After serving on Marwell’s board as a trustee and director emeritus for eight years, having previously retired as zoo director in 1998, Dr Knowles' retired from Marwell fully in 2006.

Marwell Zoo still breeds rare species, such as the mountain bongo antelope and African rhinos.