Animals in Africa
Take a walk on the wild side
Daphne Sheldrick and Alan Root are unique among African conservationists
Aug 18th 2012 | from the print edition
Ivory, Apes & Peacocks: Animals, Adventure and Discovery in the Wild Places of Africa. By Alan Root. Chatto & Windus; 307 pages; £20. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
IT ALL began with “Born Free” in 1966, or so it seemed. One moment, Virginia McKenna, aka Joy Adamson, was walking through the bush with Elsa, the lioness the Adamsons wanted to return to the wild. The next, every publisher worth his salt was bringing out books about tousle-headed children growing up in Africa as part of a menagerie of orphaned baby animals: bushbabies, warthogs and dwarf mongeese inevitably named after Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.
One couple who epitomised this Edenic life was David and Daphne Sheldrick. Born in Alexandria at the height of the British empire, Sheldrick moved to east Africa, becoming first a farmer and professional hunter, and then a game warden and one of the founders of Kenya’s national park service. But it was his wife’s perseverance in devising a milk formula that would suit baby elephants that turned her into an animal aunt after her husband’s early death. Through the late 1970s and 1980s, Kenya’s elephants were increasingly threatened by poachers; their babies survived as best they could—or not at all. Daphne Sheldrick’s milk formula allowed her to hand-rear hundreds of elephant orphans.
Soon she was the darling of the BBC's natural-history coverage. With her tiny waist and curly dark hair, Daphne Sheldrick (pictured) looked a lot like the queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, and in 2006 the queen formalised her status as a national treasure by making her a Dame Commander of the British Empire, the first knighthood for Kenya since independence more than four decades earlier.
If Dame Daphne’s touching and romantic “Love, Life, and Elephants” has been climbing the bestseller lists in Britain and America, Alan Root’s “Ivory, Apes and Peacocks” is by far the deeper and more interesting read. Born in London’s East End, Mr Root moved to Africa as a child shortly after the second world war. His family kept a genet cat, a duiker and a baboon called Bimbo. The boy naturalist was taken up by two of Africa’s earliest wildlife cameramen—Des Bartlett and Armand Denis—and quickly learned their trade. In turn, he would become one of Africa’s most original wildlife film-makers. Mr Root was lucky to get in at the start of animal cinematography. The first major project he worked on was “Serengeti Shall Not Die”, which in 1960 won an Oscar for best documentary and is still considered one of the most influential wildlife films ever made.
But it was only when Mr Root began working with his Kenya-born wife, Joan, that he really hit his stride as a cinematic storyteller. Whether filming hippos in the clear water of Mzima Spring, flamingo chicks in a dried-out soda lake or the complex layers of life within a massive baobab tree, the Roots always let their subjects tell their own stories—making astonishing discoveries along the way. In Britain their films were part of Anglia Television’s groundbreaking “Survival” series. The American market, with its demanding commercial sponsors, proved harder to crack. The films on Mzima and the baobab eventually won over NBC, but when Mr Root proposed making a documentary about a termite mound (“In America ‘termites’ is the same kind of word as ‘cancer’”, he was told), the network took fright.
Undeterred, the Roots spent two years filming the termites on their own. “Castles of Clay” turned out just as Mr Root had envisioned it: a remarkable ecological tapestry that wove in all the creatures that converge on the mounds for food or shelter. The film was nominated for an Oscar and was widely shown in America on NBC, the network that had turned it down.
“Ivory, Apes and Peacocks” is cut from the same cloth. The problems that beset Africa’s wildlife—population pressures, poaching, drought and disease—are all part of this story, though balanced here by Mr Root’s sense of fun and adventure. It is only when the reader counts up how many of his friends die violently—killed by robbers, by animals, in aeroplane crashes and on the roads—that it becomes clear that the struggle to save Africa’s wild animals has been much harsher than the author lets on.
The heroine of “Born Free”, Joy Adamson, was murdered by an intruder; her husband, George, by Somali bandits. Mr Root’s wild-haired assistant, Giles Thornton, was shot trying to protect his girlfriend during a bungled robbery. Even Joan, who fought poachers at her lakeside sanctuary at Naivasha, was in the end gunned down in her bedroom, the automatic weapon fired from so close to the window that the muzzle blast set fire to the curtains.
This is a lyrical tribute by Mr Root to the woman who helped make those documentaries and to the continent that shaped the young film-makers. That the book has not been bought by an American publisher is a crying shame. Dame Daphne and Mr Root have been fortunate to live in a magical landscape during some magical decades. It is hard, though, to see a happy ending to Africa’s wildlife story.