Remembering pole pole

17 October 2021


Why 17th October is such a poignant day for our wildlife charity and how – in memory of one special elephant – you can help end captive exploitation. 

A black and white image of a captive elephant reaching its trunk over the railings of its enclosure to touch the hands of Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.

On this day, 38 years ago, a young elephant was destroyed at London Zoo. She was just 17 years of age. Wild elephants can live for 60 years or more. Named Pole Pole*, this elephant has a unique link to Born Free and her untimely death led to the start of our charity. 

In 1969, our Co-Founders Bill Travers MBE and Virginia McKenna OBE starred with Pole Pole in a film called An Elephant Called Slowly, set in Kenya. She was just two when torn from her wild family by the Kenyan Government, as a gift to London Zoo. When filming ended, Bill and Virginia did everything they could to prevent the move, but the little calf was sent to the UK.

In 1982, Bill and Virginia went to see Pole Pole in London Zoo. She paced her barren, concrete enclosure and swayed abnormally to and fro. Lonely, confused and unpredictable, Pole Pole was prematurely aged by captivity. Yet, when Bill and Virginia called her name, she came to them immediately, her trunk outstretched to meet their outstretched hands. Even in her distress, she remembered them. 

“It was one of the most agonising moments I can remember,” Virginia says. “Mixed up with memories of the joy of being with her in Africa and our wonderful, unique friendship, I’ve never really lost that terrible sense of guilt that we let her down.” Virginia and Bill campaigned to give Pole Pole a better life. In 1983, London Zoo agreed to send her Whipsnade to be among other elephants. However, kept in her travelling crate for many hours, she collapsed and was put down.


Devastated and outraged by her shocking death, Bill and Virginia were determined Pole Pole’s short life would not be in vain. Together with their son, Will Travers OBE, in 1984 they launched Zoo Check, the charity that has evolved into Born Free. Dismissed at the time as a ‘nine-day wonder’, Born Free is today a world-renowned force for wildlife and, thanks to our tireless campaigning, there are no more elephants at London Zoo.

Nearly 38 years on, Pole Pole remains firmly at the heart of everything we do to keep wildlife in the wild. “How terrible it is for an elephant – this wisest, cleverest and most sensitive of animals – to be kept in captivity,” explains Virginia. “Pole Pole lit a flame in our hearts. It must never go out.” 

With you by our side, our mission continues to stop the capture of wild elephants for captive exploitation and to end their suffering in zoos and circuses. Slowly, slowly, we chip away at the monolith of the grotesque, multi-billion-pound global captive industry. We won’t stop until it is at an end. 

Take action for captive elephants
If, like us, you are inspired by Pole Pole’s heartrending true story, please support our campaign to end the captive exploitation of this remarkable species, starting with a focus on an Elephant-Free UK.


*Pronounced Po-lee Po-lee, her name means ‘Slowly Slowly’ in Swahili.

Image (c) Daily Mail