Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Big Cats in Crisis on World Wildlife Day

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

March 3rd is World Wildlife Day, designated by the United Nations to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants.

This year, the theme is Big Cats: Predators Under Threat. All kinds of events are planned across the world to celebrate these magnificent animals, and, more importantly, to raise awareness of the perilous situation in which they find themselves, almost without exception as a result of human activities such as poaching, land conversion and conflict.

Big Cats continue to live across three continents. Lions, leopards and cheetahs call both Africa and Asia home. Asia is also home to tigers, snow and clouded leopards. Jaguars and pumas roam over large parts of the Americas.

The range of habitats occupied by big cats is nothing short of astonishing, from the vast icy home of snow leopards across numerous bleak yet beautiful Asian mountain ranges, to the hunting grounds of jaguars in the rainforests of the Amazon basin, and the deserts of Northern Namibia where prides of lions eke out a living in one of the driest and most inhospitable places on earth. Few other large mammal taxa can match the big cats’ ability to adapt to such diverse and challenging environments. The puma has the largest range of any land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, and the African lion is capable of surviving in pretty much all African habitats, save only the densest tropical rainforests and the interior of the Sahara desert.

However, behind this apparent resilience and adaptability lies a worrying truth. All big cat species are in decline, and in many cases their very future is in serious doubt. Less than 4,000 wild tigers are scattered across 13 countries. As few as 20,000 wild lions remain across Africa, occupying just 8% of their historic range, and alongside the 7,000 wild cheetahs, declining leopard numbers, and snow-leopards counted in the low thousands, are vulnerable to local or regional extinction. Jaguars are classified as near-threatened, and even pumas, which are considered to be of least conservation concern among the big cats, are decreasing in number.

The reasons behind these declines vary between species and locations. There are, however, some all-too-common themes. Loss of habitat, and particularly declines in prey animals, affect all big cats as expanding human populations encroach on their traditional hunting grounds and convert them for settled agriculture, livestock or other uses. As big cats and people come into ever closer contact, conflict inevitably results, and big cats find themselves persecuted by people who fear for their cattle, sheep and goats – and sometimes their own lives and those of their families.

As troubling is the fact that big cats haven’t escaped the increasing global demand for wild animals and parts and products derived from them. Cheetah cubs are captured, often at the expense of their entire families, and smuggled  as exotic ‘pets’, principally to the Middle East. Tiger parts have long been in demand in the Far East for use in traditional medicines and tonics, and as tigers have become more scarce, bones and products from lions and other big cats are increasingly sought as substitutes. Tiger farms have sprung up in China and some other Asian countries to illegally supply the demand, and South Africa now legally exports hundreds of skeletons from captive-bred lions each year, fuelling demand and increasing the risk of wild lion poaching. These farms not only serve to further stimulate the demand but also provide a means by which products from wild cats can be laundered into trade, while all-too-often maintaining animals in appalling captive conditions.

Controversially, trophy hunters also target big cats for so-called ‘sport’, and there is increasing evidence that trophy hunting is not only cruel but, in many cases, unsustainable. Morally, the killing of wild animals for ‘fun’ is something the majority of people reject and allowing people to pay to kill these magnificent animals as ‘trophies’ only adds to the pressure they are under.

Lions have and continue to play a massive part in Born Free’s story. Today, we work across continents to protect habitats for lions and other big cats, mitigate human-cat conflict, rescue animals from poor and exploitative captive conditions, and increase legal protection from trade and other threats.

So as we celebrate big cats this World Wildlife Day, we must not only remember that their future is precarious, but that their future is very much in our hands. If we want to be able to continue celebrating the magnificence, wildness, variety, range and splendour of big cats long into the future, we need to act now.

Keep wildlife in the wild.

Dr Mark Jones,  Veterinarian

Associate Director at Born Free

Support our work by adopting a big cat this #WorldWildlifeDay!

Remembering Joy Adamson

Friday, January 19th, 2018

“January 20th 1910. It is hard to believe that 118 years have passed since Joy Adamson was born. To some of us, memories of this unique, passionate, forceful and extraordinary woman have not faded with time. And those memories, of course, are indisputably linked with a lioness called Elsa.

From a tiny cub, until her death in 1961, aged only five years old, Elsa was the centre of Joy’s life. The books she wrote about this unique animal – describing how she and her husband George shared their life with her- remain as fascinating today as they did then.

My husband Bill and I were extremely lucky to have been chosen to play the Adamsons in the film “Born Free”, based on Joy’s best- selling book. I always thought it must have been hard for her to watch an English actress, with no knowledge of lions or the African bush “being Joy”. But she was unfailingly generous with her advice and we became friends. In fact, when filming ended, she invited me to go to Meru with her, where the real Elsa story had taken place, and I saw a soft and vulnerable side to her that was deeply touching.

Joy will always be remembered as a person who aroused strong feelings and opinions. But she was unique. She inspired people to develop a more sensitive attitude to wild creatures and, for me, she – together with our very special friend George – showed Bill and myself a new path to follow in our life. One we never left.”

- Virginia McKenna OBE, Co-Founder of Born Free

The timeless love we have for dolphins

Sunday, November 19th, 2017

Born Free’s Captivity Officer Samantha Goddard reflects on the deep-rooted affection we have here in the UK for what could be the most loved species on the planet, the dolphin.

Faced with the prospect of an end to the keeping of dolphins in captivity in the UK in 1986, the then Director of London Zoo made the bold claim that if the UK lost its dolphinaria, then people would lose interest in dolphins.

I am pleased to say that today there are no captive dolphins in the UK.  The last remaining captive facilities in Brighton and Morecombe Marineland closed in 1991, following a campaign called ‘Into the Blue’, coordinated by animal welfare organisations including Born Free. But what of the claim that people would lose interest in dolphins? Have people in the UK stopped caring about these wonderful animals since the tanks were closed?

It seems clear that public concern for dolphins had, and still has, a very large part to play in making and keeping the UK dolphinaria-free. While you may no longer see people protesting outside dolphinaria in Britain, hundreds of people from across the country gather in London each year to protest the brutal capture of dolphins from the wild in Taiji in Japan. Their calls to keep these animals in the wild can surely be attributed not to the presence of dolphinaria in the UK, but their absence; perfectly illustrating that the captivity of whales and dolphins is not required to inspire passion for these animals. In fact, in 2014 a public opinion poll showed that 86% of the 2,050 British people questioned said that they would not want to visit dolphinaria during their holidays

In 2016, the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) was ranked as one of Britain’s top 1,000 charities based on its voluntary public donations, which for last year were almost £3 million; there are many people in the UK donating specifically to help dolphins in captivity and in the wild.

TV documentaries about marine animals including dolphins reach record viewing figures: Dolphins- Spy in the Pod (2014), reached 5.3 million viewers for the first episode alone. The first series of Blue Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, first aired in 2001 and drew in 12 million viewers, making £20 million in DVD sales. The second series, Blue Planet II, aired this year and has been the most watched programme of 2017 so far.

These statistics arguably demonstrate that people in the UK have as much, if not more, of an interest and passion for dolphins and marine wildlife today than when they were kept in tanks across the country.

Around the world, many people have an affinity with dolphins: some will be happy to see them in captivity, while others would not dream of doing so. So what is the difference between these two groups of people? I think it is very little, and the fact that some people remain keen to see dolphins and whales in captivity shows that the truth about the suffering of animals in captivity has just not yet spread far enough.  Born Free is working to educate people about animal suffering and exploitation so they can then make their own informed decisions.

There are now so many ways to ‘see’ these amazing animals without captivity, including the immersive TV documentaries mentioned above. With the use of the latest technologies, these allow us to see all kinds of marine animals up close and personal in their natural environments undertaking their natural behaviours, and this is exactly what ground-breaking TV series, such as Blue Planet allow us to do from the comfort of our own front rooms.  We can see things such as dolphins swimming alongside false killer whales in New Zealand, and a pod of orca hunting for herring in Norway.

On the subject of orca, we are delighted to have seen a 24% increase in adoption figures for “our” orca, Springer, over the last 2 years.  We believe this is due, in part, to our #TankFree campaign; the key message from which is that we can and must do much better for whales and dolphins than to keep them in barren tanks.

I am very happy that the only way to see whales and dolphins around the UK today is in the wild. Since the captive industry closed here in the 1990s, it is simply not true that interest  in dolphins has been lost; if anything people are more interested in them, to the point of wanting to end the keeping of whales and dolphins in tanks altogether around the world.  If you share this conviction, why not visit our webpage to find out more about our #TankFree campaign and our adoption for Springer the orca?

Remembering Rhinos on World Rhino Day

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

September 22nd is World Rhino Day. It’s a day to celebrate these ancient, magnificent animals that are thought to have roamed the earth in one form or another for 50 million years, and once dominated whole continents.

It’s a day to remember the thousands of rhinos who have tragically lost their lives in recent years, and to reflect on how we can secure a future for the five remaining species.

And it’s a day when we remember the many brave men and women, the Rangers, Wardens and Scouts, who are injured or even lose their lives on the conservation front line, protecting these iconic wild animals.

Fewer than 30,000 rhinos currently roam the plains and forests of Africa and Asia. Africa’s 20,000 southern white rhinos are by far the most numerous, with South Africa home to more than 90%. Black rhinos are spread across 10 sub-Saharan African countries, and with a total population of just over 5,000 are critically endangered.

The other three extant rhino species all live in Asia. Some 3,200 greater one-horned rhinos survive in National Parks across Nepal and north-eastern India. Indonesia is home to both the Javan and Sumatran rhino. Smaller than their African and South Asian cousins, they are also the rarest with less than 100 individuals of each species clinging on.

There are many reasons why rhinos, once so numerous and widespread, have declined so precipitously. Over millennia, they have gradually been outcompeted across many parts of their historic range by other species. In more recent times, their remaining habitats have shrunk as people have moved into wild areas and converted land for pastoral and agricultural use.

Hunting has also had a huge impact. Rhinos have been hunted by people for centuries, but uncontrolled sport hunting during the colonial era nearly wiped rhinos off the planet altogether. Only concerted conservation efforts during the latter half of the 20th century prevented their extinction.

In recent years, while sport hunting continues to be a problem for some populations, poaching to supply rhino horn into lucrative illegal Asian markets has taken over as the largest threat. Rhino horn has been prized by a tiny elite as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine for centuries, but increased wealth among the rapidly-emerging middle classes, particularly in Vietnam and China, has led to a huge rise in demand for horn, not just for traditional medicinal use but increasingly as a symbol of wealth and social standing.

As a result, rhino horns change hands for the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars per kg, and organised criminal networks have turned rhino poaching into an industry, defying local and international laws and trade bans. Some 7,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers in South Africa alone over the past decade, and poaching incidents are on the rise in other rhino range States including Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Around a third of South Africa’s rhinos are owned by private ranchers, some of whom want to be able to profit from the sale of horn. Two of these rhino owners recently successfully overturned South Africa’s domestic moratorium on rhino horn trade which had been in place since 2009, and John Hume, the owner of some 1500 rhinos who has a reported stockpile of over 6 tonnes of horn, auctioned off a part of his stockpile in August, unashamedly targeting Asian bidders.

The ultimate stated intention of Mr Hume and other rhino owners is to legalise international trade in rhino horn, to enable them to access key Asian markets directly and maximise their profits. They argue that opening up legal trade will enable them to satisfy the demand and control international markets – rhino horn can, after all, be ‘harvested’ periodically without unduly harming the animal. This, they say, will render poaching uneconomic, and generate money to help them protect their rhinos.

But quite how South Africa’s authorities will prevent the domestic trade in legally purchased horn from fueling  illegal international trade, let alone manage to control markets in Asia, is a mystery. After all, South Africa is already the source of most of the illegal rhino horn entering markets in Vietnam, China and elsewhere. Criminal syndicates, the very people who have the biggest interest in hoovering up rhino horns from legal sales and using them as a means of laundering horn from poached rhinos, are already way ahead of the authorities.

Legitimising the sale of rhino horn within South Africa also sends a confusing message to potential Asian consumers, and undermines the considerable ongoing public education efforts aimed at reducing demand. As a result, demand could increase dramatically, new markets could emerge, dormant markets could be re-energised, and the incentives to poach wild rhino for their horns will most likely rise dramatically.

So while a handful private rhino owners in South Africa stand to profit handsomely from legal sales, wild rhinos are set to suffer not just in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, where poaching is already a big problem, but also in Kenya, India, Nepal, and other countries that have thus far managed to largely contain this heinous activity.

Previous attempts to deal with wildlife poaching crises by opening up legal trade have failed miserably. The most recent one-off sales of elephant ivory sanctioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) were followed by some of the worst declines in elephant populations ever seen, with more than 150,000 (30%) of African elephants killed by poachers since 2012. There is no reason to think that rhinos will fare any better if trade is legalised.

Rhinos are in crisis, but it’s a crisis that we cannot trade our way out of.

So while we celebrate rhinos on World Rhino Day, we must remember that the future for rhinos, along with that of elephants, tigers, pangolins and other species affected by poaching and trade, depends on our ability to protect these wonderful animals in their wild homes, and persuade global consumers not to buy rhino horns and other wildlife products.

Born Free works tirelessly to protect rhinos. To help with this work, the book ‘Remembering Rhinos’ will be launched by Born Free’s co-founder and President Will Travers OBE and Margot Raggett, its creator, on 1st November at the Royal Geographical  Society in London. The follow up to the enormously popular ‘Remembering Elephants’ book and exhibition, ‘Remembering Rhinos’ features images donated by many of the world’s top wildlife photographers. An exhibition will also be held at La Galleria, Pall Mall, London, which will run from 30th October to 11th November 2017, at which copies of the book and images can be purchased. 100% of the proceeds will go towards helping the ‘Remembering Rhinosteam, Born Free and its partners protect rhinos in the wild.

By purchasing Remembering Rhinos, you’re not just remembering those who have gone before, but also helping to secure a lasting future for these amazing and ancient animals.

You can find out more about ‘Remembering Rhinos’ here

Written by Dr Mark Jones, Vet and Associate Director of Born Free

The rarest (and prettiest) wild relative of man’s best friend!

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

Addis Ababa, 26 August 2017

In contrast to other canids, Ethiopian wolves are highly specialised to life on the roof of Africa. Only a handful of mountain enclaves now harbour the right conditions to support viable populations of Ethiopian wolves. They are Africa’s rarest, and most threatened carnivore, and most of their populations are tiny. A mere 450 wolves, to nearly one billion dogs worldwide!

Ethiopia is the cradle of humanity, and farming has been modifying its surface for millennia. The need for arable land brings about an incessant pressure on natural habitats. Barley crops and potato fields are slowly encroaching the last relicts of Afroalpine diversity, and the wolves and other endemics wildlife such as the walia ibex, the mountain nyala, the wattle crane, down to the giant molerat, are seeing their habitat shrink and bringing local extinction a step closer.

By and large people in the Ethiopian highlands are relatively tolerant of wildlife, but their priority is one of survival. Unless their livelihoods can be brought into line with sustainable practices, the meadows and moors they need to graze their stock, gather firewood and tend their crops will soon be all degraded to bare rock. And while many highland wildlife can coexist with shepherds and their livestock, free-ranging dogs bring in an additional challenge, posing the most real and immediate threat to the wolves. Coming from many surrounding villages and towns dogs not only compete for food and chase wolves. They are inexorably drawn to each other and interact, inevitably transmitting rabies and distemper to their wild cousins, and even hybridising.

Disease ultimately determines the dynamics of the last remaining wolf havens, with three out of four wolves typically dying in populations hit by outbreaks, their numbers a rollercoaster. The Bale Mountains plateaux harbour the largest number of wolves; in the last three years they have endured back-to-back rabies and distemper outbreaks. Smaller populations are at even greater risk; last year disease decimated the smallest wolf population.

In a way these wolves are victims of their own success as Afroalpine specialists. But because of the warming continent, and the pressure of humans, livestock and dogs, now they are restricted to tiny mountain pockets and pushed ever up the slopes. There are reasons to be optimistic about their future though.

In 1995 Born Free Foundation helped me to establish the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme. With their help we have since vaccinated in excess of 80,000 dogs to prevent rabies getting across to wolves. And when the deadly virus strikes, swift wolf vaccinations have taken place. In a shift from reactive vaccination to a preventive approach an oral vaccine has been trialled that will offer protection from future rabies epizootics. These vaccination campaigns not only protect the wolves, but also the dogs and their owners, saving lives and preventing financial loss.

There are signs that the wolves in the Bale Mountains are bouncing back. By the end of January, nearly all packs monitored (and recently vaccinated) had bred successfully and some of the larger packs had split, increasing the number of breeding families. With as many as seven pups born to a dominant female, the potential for numeric recovery is high, with over 80 pups located in the Bale Mountains alone.

Rare, ecological specialists such as these wolves will continue to be threatened and require intervention to secure their survival. Climate shifts in mountain ranges tend to impact on specialists, and there are few mitigation approaches available to protect small populations that get caught in this habitat vortex. So we can expect local extinctions for several montane specialists, although for the wolves a metapopulation management paradigm will become part of the solution, with conservation translocations enabling recovery and genetic flux. We expect to see more of these interventions in the next decade.

The Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, and its Ethiopian partners, with the amazing support of the Born Free Foundation, continue to put all their strength to fight the threats through awareness, education, and science-led approaches to managing disease.  It is a long-term game, and only through committed efforts and dedication the necessary trust and common ground between the needs of people and wildlife can be found.

If you are a dog lover help us protect their rarest wild cousin from disease and habitat loss, by making a donation to the Born Free Foundation. Thank you!

Prof Claudio Sillero

Born Free’s Head of Conservation and EWCP Founder & Director

(Images © Eric Bedin)

Tribute to George Adamson

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

It is the 28th Anniversary of the murder of George Adamson, a man who was an inspiration to my husband Bill Travers, and myself: to Bill until his life’s end and, to me, until the end of mine.  It is perhaps unusual for a husband and wife to share such admiration, loyalty and love for the same person, but this was the case for us.  From the moment we first met him in June 1964.

I am not suggesting that others didn’t share these feelings as the opposite is true.  He was loved and admired by thousands of people all over the world; people who met him, stayed in his simple little camp in Kora, Kenya, and people who had never met him but had heard of him or read his books.  Or, possibly, seen him in the documentary films Bill made including ‘The Lions are Free’, and ‘Christian, the Lion at World’s End’.

I think it would be true to say that the lions that George knew, cared for and often returned to the wild, were the real loves of his life.  His camps were  first in Meru, with three of the lions we managed to save, after filming ‘Born Free’, from being sent to zoos and safari parks, and then in Kora with many others who came from various backgrounds – including the famous Christian.  He was here for 20 years – sharing it for the last years of his life with his brother Terence, who died in 1986.

Who, one asks, would want to kill a man who was one of the most kind and loyal people one could ever meet?  Obviously it had to be someone that didn’t know him.  And so it was.  People who resented the presence of George and his lions in Kora, which they coveted for grazing their cattle and access to the river.

But, as often happens, a person can die but their life, beliefs and humanity towards all forms of life will never be destroyed.

I have several pictures of George in my home, but I don’t need to look at them to see him.  His philosophy, modesty, kindness and love for animals are present in my mind each day.  I know that without him the film ‘Born Free’ could never have been made in the same way.  In his truly humble and self-effacing way he will always be ‘Lord of the Lions’.


Elephants need protecting. Lifting the ivory ban is no solution

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

We’re told we are in the ‘anthropocene’ era, the era of human domination. One of the features of this era is the so-called ‘sixth extinction’.

In plain language, many of the world’s species are disappearing as a result of human activities. The current rate of species extinction may be 1,000 times higher than what might be expected without human influence.

Our demand for wildlife products is a significant factor in the decline of many species. Yet in spite of overwhelming evidence of its damaging impacts, some countries continue to promote trade in products from endangered species as some kind of solution to the crisis. They are wrong to do so.

African elephants feature among the species in serious decline, and have been held up by many as a ‘poster species’ to highlight our increasingly destructive impact on the planet. Our largest surviving terrestrial mammals are highly intelligent and intensely social, immensely strong yet capable of great sensitivity. They have a reputation for having long memories, and they mourn their deceased relatives and sometimes even people who have been kind to them. They are the gardeners of the forests and savannahs in which they live, creating and renewing the landscape to the benefit of multitudes of other species.

Yet Africa’s elephants are disappearing fast.

The statistics are devastating. Less than half a million African elephants remain compared with perhaps five million just a century ago. The loss of habitat and migratory routes through encroachment of expanding human populations into wildlife areas, has had a big impact, as has the human-elephant conflict that inevitably results. But the major driver of recent decline has been the industrial-scale massacre of elephants to supply ivory into trade.

In excess of 150,000 African elephants have been slaughtered by poachers since 2012. At least 20,000 continue brutally killed each year. Every one of these was a family member. Every one played its part in elephant society and the wider ecology. The loss of every one is irreplaceable.

International trade in ‘new’ ivory was effectively banned in 1989 when African elephants were listed on Appendix I of the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, trade in ivory within many countries remains legal, and international trade in raw and worked ivory items, both legal and illegal, has continued to flourish, stimulating demand and incentivising the poachers and traffickers.

In response, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a Resolution in 2016 urging countries to close their domestic ivory markets, and CITES followed suit. The USA, formerly a major market for ivory, implemented a ‘near total ban’ last year. China announced it would do the same and has already begun closing ivory carving factories and retail outlets, a process that should be completed by the end of 2017. Many African countries already operate domestic bans. These combined actions, alongside demand reduction efforts in key markets, appear to be having some impact, with prices for raw ivory reported to be falling fast.

Yet some still seem to think that we can trade our way out of this crisis, and continue to call for the international ban on ivory to be overturned.

In August 2017, Zimbabwe’s Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri was quoted as saying that Zimbabwe would be putting up a “strong fight” to lift the international ivory trade ban, with the claimed support of several other African countries including South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Zimbabwe  and other southern African countries have long been advocates of treating wild animals and products obtained from them as commercial commodities, only seeing their value in monetary terms. Reports suggest that Zimbabwe is sitting on perhaps 100 tonnes of stockpiled ivory, which it is desperate to monetise with seemingly little consideration for the potential consequences. The timing of this latest effort is far from coincidental, with a 9-year ‘moratorium’ on efforts to get CITES to allow international ivory trade coming to an end, and an important CITES meeting coming up in November 2017.

However, any effort to reverse the international trade ban would be disastrous. It would send a mixed message to governments, consumers and traders at a time when the international community is coming together to shut the trade down. It would undermine years of field conservation initiatives by countless individuals working across elephants’ range, and education efforts aimed at informing the public of the horrific nature of the ivory trade and reducing consumer demand for ivory. It would provide a mechanism by which poachers and traffickers could launder their illegally-obtained blood-ivory into markets.

The last ‘one-off’ ivory sale agreed by CITES took place in 2008, and included ivory from Zimbabwe. Counter to claims made at the time, elephants did not benefit from these auctions; rather the sales resulted in parallel legal and illegal ivory markets which have proved impossible to control. Unprecedented levels of elephant poaching followed. The consequences for elephants across much of Africa have been disastrous.

And Zimbabwe is hardly in a position to claim that it could effectively control and manage a legal trade mechanism, given its poor rating on crime and corruption indices. The chances of any proceeds from future ivory sales resulting in a significant net benefit to  Zimbabwe’s conservation programmes or local communities in Zimbabwe are dismally slim.

The global community is finally waking up to the value of elephants, the devastating impact of ivory trade, and the need to shut down demand for and trade in ivory from all sources in all markets, if the scourge of poaching is to be addressed. We may already be seeing the benefits of these actions.

Now is a time for the international community to hold firm, not to bow to those whose interest is merely financial.

Dr Mark Jones, Associate Director MEAs and UK Wildlife

World Elephant Day

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

So often in life an individual can highlight a cause, be a positive or negative symbol of an issue affecting thousands of others.  Through that one person or, in this particular case, one animal, we can learn about and identify with their joy or suffering.  It is a powerful and unforgettable experience.

Today is the 34th anniversary of the death of Pole Pole, an elephant my husband Bill and I knew well.  Some people know the story but, for those who don’t, I will just tell you a little about her life which led to her premature death.  It was 1968, and Bill and I were making a film in Kenya – ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’.  We filmed in Tsavo National Park in Kenya where David Sheldrick was Senior Warden, and where his wife Daphne had begun her renowned work with orphaned elephants.

At that time she had two teenage elephants, but we needed a little one for our story and David mentioned he knew of one in a trapper’s yard in Nairobi.  She was a terrified and traumatised little two year old, having been taken from her family in the wild. But within two days David had calmed her.  Without doubt she was the ‘star’ of the film and we loved her beyond words.

Filming over, we asked if we could buy her and give her to Daphne.  This was agreed – but.   The ‘but’ was horrifying.  It was possible only if the authorities caught another elephant in her place – as the Government of that time had promised to give a little one to London Zoo.  Another family distraught, another little elephant doomed for a life in captivity, in a strange land amongst strangers?  It was impossible.

Pole Pole was in London Zoo until her untimely end.  It was tragic to see her there.  The moment Bill and I visited her in 1982 – following a letter from Daphne that alerted us to a potential problem – is engraved on my memory forever.

She was a poor-looking thing, dry skin, only one partially broken tusk – and alone.  We couldn’t believe it was the same animal.  She was slowly pacing up and down the compound, a few visitors looked on.  Then we called her, ‘Pole Pole’.  She stopped, came towards us and put out her trunk to touch our hands.  Even now I can hardly bear to think of it.

We tried to help her, and found a Reserve in South Africa who would give her a home and an experienced ‘elephant person’ to go with her.  To no avail.  However, the zoo said they would move her to Whipsnade, where there were other elephants.

The day for the move arrived.  A travelling crate had been in place for several days and, apparently, she went calmly into it.  Unfortunately she was kept standing in it for so long she collapsed and later, having had a damaged leg which was examined under anaesthetic, she was ‘put down’. I was told that she had lost the will to live.

Pole Pole’s story tells us everything that’s wrong with keeping elephants in zoos.  They are social, family animals and should never be alone.  Unfortunately we know that, just in Europe, there are at least 40 elephants who exist in this way.  Elephants can walk up to 80 km in a day choosing their food, exploring different paths, planting the forests of the future with the seeds in their dung.  They are creatures with a purpose.

And, of course, in mentioning the way we control and dominate these wise and wonderful animals, I must not forget what they experience when they are in the circus.  Not only is their confinement even more severe, but they are made to perform inane tricks under the lights of ‘The Big Top’, on command.  It would drive any creature mad.

My plea to all those who still keep elephants in zoos and circuses is to show some respect and humanity towards them.  Help end the horrific ‘trade’ in elephants, whereby they are captured from the wild and sent to zoos – often in the Far East.  Not all survive.

End the fearful ivory trade.

End the breeding of elephants in captivity – show some compassion and respect for this most sensitive and wisest of creatures.

What a legacy Pole Pole will have left, if all I hope for comes true. World Elephant Day will have a new meaning.


Virginia McKenna Guest Blog

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

23rd May 2017 is a date that will remain engraved on our hearts always.  Some dates are like that, often for the happiest of reasons – others for the darkest.  The city of Manchester was yet another victim of the world’s perpetrators of violence and intolerance.  The cruel and arbitrary killing of innocent people, including children, seems to sweep across the world in relentless waves.  No one knows when or if it will end.  No one knows how to end it.

Overwhelmed as everyone is by this tragedy, ‘life’ goes on.  And that includes the election of a new government in a weeks’ time.  Promises of good things are made by all the Parties.  I won’t list them here but included, of course, are housing, the health service, education, defence…. But some issues are conspicuous by their absence.

I cannot specifically name political parties; as a charity we have to be a-political.  But while, in some respects, the promises made are encouraging, others are quite the opposite.  Building on ‘Green Belt’, a free vote to bring back fox-hunting, to name a couple.

There is one personal example I can give. The approval of proposals to ‘explore’ for oil in the area near where I live – which is both Green Belt and a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Money turns all to dust.  ‘Oh, we will put it all back when we’ve finished’ they cry.  Do they mean replant all the trees; entice the wild creatures to return to a barren land?

Nature has never been more vulnerable, and I am not only writing about the land around us, here on this small island.  As a direct result of human activities and our ever-growing population, there is less and less room for wildlife. We are in a state of total imbalance.  On the whole, wild animals, if left alone, just get on with their lives – but that’s an ever-increasing challenge.  We like to use them – make money out of them for food, for ‘sport’, take their land, destroy their habitats.  Only occasionally do we reflect on their aesthetic contribution to the planet.

It is many years since Joanna Lumley and I wrote to the then Prime Minister, asking for there to be a ban on wild animals in circuses.  Basically we were told it would be delivered ‘when Parliamentary time allows’.  We know, for a fact, that a huge cross-party majority of MPs would like a ban.  Yet, so far, nothing has been done.  A handful of animals continue to languish in their trailers or in ‘winter quarters’, performing in the ring to command when the season begins.  We lag, shamefully, behind 19 other countries.

We permit the sale of wild animals on the internet – who knows where they have come from or where they are going?  Birds in small cages unable to fly, puppy ‘farms’, intensive poultry rearing, the badger cull, calves removed from their mothers for the veal industry, the lifetime confinement of wild animals in zoos.  And the elephant ivory trade, the poaching of rhino for their horn, the ‘trophy hunting’ of big cats – so shockingly forced into our consciousness by the meaningless and illegal death of Cecil the beautiful lion, cruelly killed in Zimbabwe by an American dentist.

I don’t want words – I’ve used far too many here.  I want action.  I implore our leaders, whoever they are, to set an example of kindness, sensitivity, compassion towards animals as well as humans.  They seem to forget, or perhaps are just indifferent to the fact, that animals also feel pain, joy, loneliness, fear, jealousy, friendship.

Here at Born Free we know, from the experience of our work over the past 33 years, that the perils faced by the natural world I have described above are not an exaggeration.

I think living creatures deserve better than that.  I think we need to ‘Keep Wildlife in the Wild’, where it belongs.

Virginia McKenna

Ethiopian Wolf Conservation

Monday, April 10th, 2017

Dear Friends of Wildlife

I’m absolutely freezing!  It is hard to believe that in Africa you would need to wear three layers inside your sleeping bag but at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, high up in the Bale Mountains at the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Research Centre, that is exactly what you need – and hot soup helps too!

I am here with Professor Claudio Sillero, Born Free’s Head of Conservation, Dr Zelealem Tefera, Born Free’s Country Manager in Ethiopia, together with Alo and the rest of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project team, looking for the world’s most endangered wolf.

They are only found at 10,000 feet above sea level; they are only found in Ethiopia; they are only found in the wild; and there are none in captivity.

This elegant red and white wolf, a specialist hunter, which feeds mainly on rodents (and, in particular, the one kilogram giant mole rat) is incredibly rare and beautiful. Against the dramatic skyline, as scudding clouds, in turn, shift the landscape from blazing sun to almost purple grey, the Ethiopian wolf stands out. They hunt alone but live together, taking enormous care looking after and raising their precious pups.  Over 12 months ago, a rabies outbreak (contracted from dogs living in outlying communities) decimated the population but this year’s pups are numerous and wolves are on the increase again.

Born Free has been supporting this incredible conservation work for nearly 20 years and, together with Oxford University, the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) and the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), we have managed to give this most unusual predator a fighting chance.

I reflected as I walked with Alo, the Head of the Wolf Monitoring Team, across the stark but beautiful landscape, how strange it is that there are four times as many giant pandas in the world – recipients of millions of column inches and tens of millions of dollars – and yet the Ethiopian wolf barely gets a look in. It is even more bizarre to think that while almost none of us will see an Ethiopian wolf in the wild, we have its ‘relative’ in millions of households across the UK. The companionship of domestic dogs which bring much joy into our lives would not exist were it not for wolves and so, as we fight to save this species and its fragile habitat, I reach out to all dog owners, asking them to show some respect and to lend their support to the ancestors of the animal that sits by the fire, fetches the ball and pulls us along full of joy and glee when we shout ‘walkies’.

So when you next look at your dog, remember the  Ethiopian wolf and help us at Born Free to give the species a long-term future.

Blogging off.