Born Free’s rescue and education centre at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, is named in memory of an inspirational young lady who was tragically killed in Kenya 30 years ago. Today would have been her 58th birthday. This is the story of Julie Ward…
Just over 30 years ago, in February 1988, Julie Ward set off from a small market town in Suffolk on the trip of a lifetime. The 28-year-old publishing assistant and budding wildlife photographer was returning to Africa. Having fallen in love with the continent on her first visit in 1985, she was returning for a third time on her biggest trip to date – a six-month trans-African adventure.
Over the next few months, Julie kept in close contact with home, writing letters to her family and carefully sending back her precious undeveloped rolls of camera film as she travelled through Morocco, Algeria, Mali, Burkino Faso, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya.
But in Kenya, just days before she was due to fly home to the UK, tragedy struck. Julie went on a safari in Masai Mara National Park. Her jeep broke down and her travelling companion returned to Nairobi. Julie chose to stay on. When she didn’t return, the alarm was raised and a search was started. Her remains were found on 13th September 1988.
Some 30 years on, questions still remain over the circumstances of Julie’s death. But what is beyond question is Julie’s passion for Africa, her love of wildlife, her adventurous spirit, and her natural eye for a brilliant photograph.
Eight years after her death, in 1996, Born Free rescued lion and lioness Anthea and Raffi from a squalid cage on the rooftop of a Tenerife restaurant and rehomed them at a sanctuary in Kent. Moved by their story, Julie’s mother Jan felt she would like to raise money for a lion sanctuary in Africa and got in touch with Born Free.
A year later, thanks to the generosity of the family and friends of Julie, Anthea and Raffi became the first residents at Born Free’s new big cat sanctuary in South Africa. Surrounded by the beautiful sights and sounds of Africa, the sanctuary’s large, natural bush enclosures were designed to provide the big cats the space, privacy and safety they so desperately needed.
In September 1998, 10 years after Julie’s death, Born Free held the ‘Gentle Nature’ exhibition in London of photographs and letters from Julie’s last African adventure. The money raised from the exhibition and resulting book helped pay for the sanctuary and a new education centre at Shamwari. On 29th September 1999, the Julie Ward Rescue and Education Centre was officially opened. Three big cats - Aslan, Gilda and Rikki - were rehomed, a priest blessed the centre and the animals, and special guest Kiki Dee sang Born Free.
Today, the education centre continues to proudly welcome local children in Julie’s honour to learn about their own wildlife and about the suffering wildlife can endure in captivity. The rescue centre is also currently home to 10 lions and leopards rescued from appalling captive conditions.
Julie took many amazing photographs of lions on her last African adventure. We hope that, through the centre, Julie’s enduring love for wildlife and her spirit of adventure will never be forgotten.
Virginia McKenna OBE, Born Free Co-Founder and Trustee, said: “Many visitors, including local school children, come to the Julie Ward Centre, and we feel that it is a place of love, healing and respect for all living creatures as well as those who continue to live in our memory.”