A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of salt, but with more than a grain of truth!
Women at the Sharp End
And about time too, some might say! Some time ago I wrote about men in the front line of conservation and promised to write about the unsung heroines of whom there are many. With all the calls on women's time, especially if they are married or have children, it requires a huge amount of dedication to become deeply involved with wildlife. Often relationships suffered and some have even paid with their lives.
My first recollection of a woman in the front line was of Michaela Dennis, wife of Armand. At that time it was unusual to see a woman in this role but she excelled in her own inimitable style. It seemed incongruous for a woman working in the wildest of locations, mostly in Africa, to suddenly comb her hair or apply lipstick on camera! She created an unforgettable blonde bombshell character in doing so, the total opposite of her husband. Imagine the furore that would create now! With her husband she made Nairobi her home. From 1955 when they made their first film 'Filming in Africa' they spent eight years filming around the world. Michaela wrote several books based on their exploits.
Born in London, only child of a Yorkshire father, she won a scholarship to a fashion school, training as a dress designer in Paris. A far cry indeed from her later life working in the wilds of Africa and Asia. After the war she moved to America where she met Belgian Armand Dennis, a wildlife photographer and a married man in the throes of divorce. They married shortly afterwards by special licence high in the Andes. Their honeymoon was spent in jail after a little local difficulty!! Her work with Armand created a special partnership which endured until his death in 1971. She was a strong character and not always popular - fighting injustice, and protective of wildlife. She took a strong dislike to other prominent white women in Africa at the time. She died in 2003 aged 88.
The Dennis's work brought them in contact with another husband and wife team - Alan Root and his wife Joan Thorpe Root. Alan Root, a well known wildlife photographer married Joan Thorpe in 1961. She was the daughter of a Kenyan coffee planter and a safari guide to boot. He managed to meet shy Joan properly when she was rearing an orphaned elephant, and like another female of that time, Daphne Sheldrick, she was more successful than most in the attempt. More of Daphne later.
The Roots, too, had a unique honeymoon! Joan was stung by a scorpion when they were camped next to the Tsavo River Bridge. They sat up all night listening to the trains, and to a lion, possibly a descendent of the man-eaters who terrified track layers back in 1898! It was the beginning of another devoted partnership committed to wildlife filming and conservation. Joan became a highly regarded wildlife photographer and filmmaker in her own right, with a passion for animals and great courage in the field. Like her husband she suffered for her cause, being spat at by a cobra and having her face mask bitten off while filming a hippopotamus. Was it the same hippo that bit a hole in Alan's leg? I don't know.
The Roots were critically acclaimed for many wildlife documentaries including much footage for the Anglia Television series 'Survival'. They divorced in the 1980s and Joan moved back to Kenya, becoming yet another outspoken conservationist. She was murdered on January 12th 2006 in her own home at the age of 69. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles, intruders shot her twice in the leg and once in the hip. She died from a massive loss of blood. Two men were later arrested, but appeared to have stolen nothing.
The Roots guided another well known female in search of gorillas. They were possibly responsible for the life changing experience which brought perhaps the most famous woman to our attention, Dian Fossey. Even those people not specially interested in wildlife cannot have missed the film Gorillas in the Mist the story of Dian's mission to save the mountain gorillas of the Virunga volcanoes, in Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire.
Dian Fossey was born in San Franciso, USA in 1932. She loved animals and began studying to be a Vet but changed to occupational therapy. She never lost her interest in animals and, in 1963 on a trip to Africa, met Dr Louis Leakey and subsequently the Roots before becoming heavily involved with mountain gorillas. Eventually she moved to Rwanda, setting up the Karisoke Research Centre. She lived there for about 18 years, building a close relationship with one gorilla in particular who she named Digit. Digit was later killed by poachers and Dian began her campaign to save the gorillas. She established the Digit Fund, from which a larger organisation known as The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe came in to being in 1992. That organisation has recently changed its name again to the Gorilla Organization (GO)
The area, and the gorillas, suffered very badly from civil wars and the Karisoke centre had to be abandoned more than once. She returned to the USA and wrote the book Gorillas in the Mist on which the film was based. She went back to Karisoke, but on 26th December 1985 she was found murdered in her cabin. The mystery of her death is still unsolved. Her work continues at Karisoke in spite of all the problems, with the mountain gorillas protected by governments and international NGOs.
Daphne Sheldrick, mentioned earlier, a contemporary of Joan Root, worked from 1955 to 1976 with her husband David, the founder of Kenya's Tsavo National Park. She raised many, many orphaned animals and birds, reintroducing them to the wild. In particular she became known internationally as the first person to perfect an infant milk formula suitable for orphan elephants and rhinos. Her passion for animals is clearly visible whenever she is on screen for her many fundraising and awareness appearances. She has many awards to her credit. The Smithsonian Magazine named her as one of just 35 people world wide to have made a significant difference to animal husbandry and wildlife conservation. In 2006 she was appointed by the Queen as Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
David Sheldrick died in 1977 but Daphne continued her work running the Orphans Nursery in Nairobi National Park and through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust founded in memory of David. Many of her rescued orphans have gone on to have wild offspring. She has also rescued over a dozen black rhino. The BBC documentary 'Elephant Diaries' about her work attracted 6 million viewers in England for five nights and her memoirs were due to be completed at the end of 2006. Definitely something to look forward to in the future.
Anna Merz, another tough cookie, made contact with Daphne Sheldrick when she was attempting to rear an orphaned rhino. She needed the correct milk formula if she had any chance of saving the little orphan. Anna hand reared both black and white rhino and her book Rhino: At the Brink of Extinction is a fascinating read. Not only was she a hands on conservationist but she put 'her money where her mouth was' and personally financed the formation of the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary. Sadly her dedication led to a separation from her husband. Read the book and you might get an inkling why!
In 1982 the owners of Lewa, the Craig family, were persuaded by Anna to allocate 5,000 acres as a rhino sanctuary. By 1988 the sanctuary had 16 rhino, five of them born there, and the sanctuary was doubled in size again financed by Anna. The story of Samia, a female black rhino calf reared by Anna, is well known and Samia mated with a wild rhino producing a wild calf. Sadly mother and calf fell to their deaths over a steep cliff in 1995 much to everyone's distress.
I listened to Anna on our local radio when she came to England to promote her book and raise awareness and funds to relocate giraffes. She was en route for America, and told the presenter that she was more nervous being on the radio than coping with dangerous wild animals. I rang in to thank her for her efforts and was rewarded with a copy of her book which I treasure to this day. She retired in 1966 but is still involved in conservation and is one formidable lady as her letters to me confirm.
There are so many women about whom I could write, such as Cynthia Moss (elephants) and Jane Goodall (chimps) to mention just two. Perhaps another time? Right now I am going to retire and lie down in a darkened room. Who said women were the weaker sex? Some of us maybe, but not these ladies of the dark continent.