Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

The Story of Pole Pole

Pole Pole  London Zoo (c) T Blackbrow/Daily Mail
Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna reach out to Pole Pole at London Zoo. Even in her distress, she remembered them

After Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers' time in Kenya making the film Born Free, Bill began to produce wildlife documentaries and films including 'An Elephant Called Slowly' (1969) also set in Kenya, and featuring Bill and Virginia with Pole Pole ('Po-lee Po-lee'), a little elephant calf. 

Pole Pole was only two when snatched from her wild family as a gift from the then Kenyan government to London Zoo.  When filming was over Bill and Virginia did everything they could to prevent the move, but the little elephant calf was sent to London.

In 1982 Bill and Virginia went to see her there.  Difficult to manage with no companions of her own kind, Pole Pole frustratedly paced her barren enclosure, prematurely aged by captivity.  They called her name.  She stopped, turned and came to them, her trunk outstretched, straining to touch their reaching hands.  Even in her distress, and after all these years, she remembered them. "It was a heartbreaking and life-changing moment," recalls Virginia. 

Bill and Virginia renewed their campaign to give Pole Pole a better life, but in 1983, aged just 16, she collapsed and died.  Yet wild elephants can live for more than 60 years.  Determined Pole Pole’s short life and untimely death should not be in vain, in 1984 Bill and Virginia launched Zoo Check with their son Will Travers, the charity that has evolved into the Born Free Foundation.  Dismissed at the time as a 'nine-day wonder', Born Free is today a renowned international wildlife charity and, thanks to our efforts, there are now no more elephants at London Zoo.

30 years on...

In 2013, the 30th Anniversary of Pole Pole's death, Virginia McKenna asked Born Free Foundation's poet in residence, Richard Bonfield to write a poem in Pole Pole's memory. You can watch a reading of the poem by Virginia & her granddaughter Emily Travers below.

Richard Bonfields's note on the poem:

"By a curious twist of fate I was born on April 27th 1959 and London zoo was first opened as a going concern on the very same date in 1828.

It appears then that my fate and the fate of zoos in general is curiously entwined And if you are a believer in the holographic paradigm postulated by David Bohm it does not seem odd that these two dates should coincide just as it does not seem odd to me that April 27th is also the anniversary of the founding of the Rainbow nation of South Africa.

I have only visited London Zoo once and this many years ago with my then girlfriend and her son .

Pole Pole had long since gone by then but I do vividly remember a pathetic little pygmy hippo swimming dejectedly alone in a caged enclosure And as she dragged herself out of the water I was hit with a wave of such utter despondency  that I felt drawn into a black hole of utter despair and this fleeting glimpse of the abject gloom of a captive animal has stayed with me ever since, making an indelible and emotionally life- changing impression."

Reminisces of Pole Pole

Read a letter, published by Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick, D.B.E., 'Reminisces of Pole Pole', in which she recalls her time with Pole Pole in Tasvo national park, Kenya.

Innocent Prisoner

To coincide with the anniversary of Pole Pole’s tragic death, the Born Free Foundation is releasing Innocent Prisoner, a new report highlighting the on-going plight of solitary elephants in Europe. Born Free has discovered the shocking truth that there are over 40 elephants currently housed alone in zoos, circuses and private facilities across Europe.

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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