Fears for life of missing botanist

Last man to see missing Friends of the Earth campaigner alive tells of his `agony' at leaving friend behind in jungle

The photographer who last saw the missing environmental campaigner Andrew Lees in Madagascar spoke for the first time last night about the "agonising decision'' he faced in leaving his friend.

Paul Hellyer decided to take the New Year's Day flight he was booked on back to Britain, just hours after learning that Mr Lees, the 46-year-old campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, had disappeared in dense tropical forest more than 12 hours earlier.

"I had to make sure the British ambassador was alerted in the capital and tell Andrew's partner and relatives he was missing,'' said Mr Hellyer. "It was impossible to make any telephone calls to anywhere from where we were staying.

"I faced an agonising decision but I felt I made the right one at the time and I still do. I knew when I left that local people were taking his disappearance seriously.'' But Mr Hellyer said he had become increasingly worried and found it hard to sleep at night.

Fears for Mr Lees' life were mounting yesterday as police tracker dogs flown down from the capital Antananarivo joined the search in a strip of coastal forest. He will have been missing for exactly a week today.

Mr Lees and his friend Mr Hellyer had travelled widely on the island in four-wheel-drive vehicles, Mr Lees filming with a video camera and Mr Hellyer taking still photographs. They last saw each other at lunchtime on New Year's Eve, less than 24 hours before they were due to take a flight from Fort Dauphin to Antananarivo.

"Andrew was very enthusiastic,'' said Mr Hellyer. "He felt the holiday had gone well and he had a big smile all over his face.'' They went their separate ways in the afternoon and, unbeknown to Mr Hellyer, Mr Lees paid a final visit to the coastal forestarriving one and a half hours before nightfall.

His driver raised the alarm, after darkness fell, when he had not returned to the vehicle. Mr Hellyer said he was puzzled by Mr Lees' absence from a New Year's Eve party that night and the next morning found his bed had not been slept in. He then learnedthat the police had already been told about his disappearance by the driver and searches had begun.

"It seemed that all that could be done around there was being done, and I had to tell people outside who couldn't be reached by telephone," Mr Hellyer said last night.

Friends of the Earth director Charles Secrett said: "With no further news we remain desperately worried but still believe there is hope this crisis will end happily.''

Mr Lees' girlfriend of eight years, Chris Orengo, flew to Madagascar earlier this week with another of his friends, Dr Jonathan Kaplan, to join the search. The British ambassador, Peter Smith, has asked the Madagascar government to do all it can to help and a reward has been offered.

Mr Lees, who has worked for Friends of the Earth for nearly 20 years, disappeared in the dense, dry forest on his fourth visit to the area during his Madagascar holiday, which began on 14 December.

"It's extremely difficult to move through, more a question of crawling than walking,'' said Mr Hellyer, 38, a travel photographer from north London. "Once you're in it looks the same in every direction - there are very few landmarks.''

The two men had flown to Madagascar for the holiday because of the spectacular variety of plants and animals which are unique to the large island nation.

Mr Lees had been especially enthusiastic at seeing a tiny chameleon in the coastal forest.

But they had extra interest in this particular area ten miles south west of Ford Dauphin, believing the mining giant Rio Tinto Zinc could soon start a mineral sands extraction project which would destroy much of the ecosystem.

Mr Lees was informally sounding out the prospects for campaigning against the scheme. The World Bank had been interested in the project but had already withdrawn in the face of opposition from Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups. Rio Tinto Zinc said it had no plans for mineral extraction for several years, and wanted a dialogue with organisations like Friends of the Earth over safeguarding the forest.

Mr Hellyer believes Mr Lees' disappearance has nothing to do with the mining scheme or any local people. `'Those we met in the remotest places were always smiling and friendly,'' he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: General Manager

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of global logisti...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager - £70,000 OTE

£35000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Manager (Vice President...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Marketing Executive i...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable