Co-founder of the Born Free Foundation Virginia McKenna OBE tells Paul Seligman why, 50 years on, she is still fighting the unethical treatment of African wildlife
How did the Born Free Foundation come into being?
In 1968 I worked on a film with a young elephant who had been gifted to London Zoo. We asked to buy her for Daphne and David Sheldrick, which was granted, but we were warned that another one must be captured as a result. Unthinkable. Many years later, we were told that she had become difficult and might be destroyed. The authorities would not allow us to rehome her in a South African reserve, but agreed to move her to Whipsnade Zoo. However, this never happened, as after standing in her travelling crate for hours, she collapsed, damaged a leg and was put down. This was the catalyst that started our charity in 1984.
How did the change from actress to activist take place?
The turning point in my life was when my husband, Bill Travers, and I were asked to play George and Joy Adamson in the film Born Free in 1964. We quickly became completely fascinated by wildlife conservation.
What influence has the film had?
It has reached a wide audience and raised issues some people had never considered.
Can you tell us about some of your current projects?
We are actively opposed to poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, and engaged in rescuing animals from wretched lives in zoos and circuses across Europe. We rehome them in our sanctuaries in South Africa, Ethiopia and Malawi. We also have an education arm: our Global Friends Project supports 13 schools in seven countries.
Are all the animals you help released into the wild?
Many are, but not the big cats. They live in large, natural bush enclosures.
Are you still actively involved in the charity?
Absolutely: travelling, accompanying rescued animals, giving talks and answering letters. I am happiest when we have helped expose the exploitation of creatures in captivity and in the wild, and then done something about it. The individual rescue is the best experience of all.
How can our readers contribute to your work?
By backing a particular project, sponsoring an animal through our adoption scheme, joining our Activate letter-writing programme or by attending one of our Born Free anniversary safaris that my son Will Travers and I will be hosting from 29 August to 9 September this year (2016). You can find out more at bornfree.org.uk or chelipeacock.com.
What plans do you have for the future?
Born Free grew organically and, hopefully, will continue to do so without losing the very personal relationship we are lucky enough to have with our supporters. That close connection is hugely important to me.
What has been your most exciting wildlife encounter?
That is hard to answer! Once we were in the bush watching some sleeping lions, when suddenly they looked up, rose and walked past our vehicles to a distant tree. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came a stream of elephant of all ages and sizes. More and more arrived — in front of us, surrounding us — until they stopped in a swampy area a few yards ahead. Here the little ones splashed and rolled and they all drank deeply. We spent an unforgettable few hours quietly observing them until they moved on.
Do you have a favourite national park?
Kenya’s Meru is my favourite, because it holds the legacy of the Born Free story and the return to the wild of Elsa, the famous lioness, with the help of George and Joy Adamson.
Finally, what tips do you have for readers looking to plan the perfect safari?
Travel with a company you know or one that has been recommended to you. Spend at least two nights in each place; this is a holiday you shouldn’t rush. Remember a sun hat, long sleeves, anti-malaria pills, sun cream and little gifts for children you meet along the way. Biros are perfect! Take photographs but also just sit and watch. The memories will never leave you.
This interview was first published in Travel Africa edition 75, July 2016.