Life in the wild: for the love of animals

Sunday September 10 2017


Allan Root in his helicopter. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Allan Root in his helicopter. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Allan Root With his sons Rory and Myles when
Allan Root With his sons Rory and Myles when the helicopter was forced by bad weather to land on a farm in Nyeri County in 2012. FILE | NMG
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Alan Root, the renowned wildlife filmmaker who died on August 26, at his home in Nanyuki, 100km north of Nairobi, was a Briton by birth but spent more than 70 of his 80 years living and working in Africa.

Adventurous by nature, Root, his third wife Fran Michelson and their two sons went “on safari” to Alaska in April despite the diagnosis.

He passed on peacefully at his home on the edge of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

Root made almost two dozen wildlife films acclaimed to have brought the magic of Africa to millions of television audiences around the world.

The majority of the films were shot in collaboration with his first wife Joan from the 1960s to the 1980s. And many won them awards, including an Oscar, two Emmys, a Peabody, and one from the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

His work also earned him an Order of the British Empire (OBE), bestowed on him by Queen Elizabeth.

Among his most acclaimed films are Baobab: Portrait of a Tree (1973), The Year of the Wildebeest (1974), Balloon Safari (1975) and Mysterious Castles of Clay (1978) which was narrated by Orson Welles and scripted by Root himself.

Unique film style

His forte was filming wildlife in their natural habitat. In fact, he is credited with pioneering a unique film style that made animals the stars and their ecosystems the sets.

Through his films, many scientists and tourists were to the habits of everything from termites, leopards and hippos to wildebeests, crocodiles and baby flamingos.

Root is even credited with introducing the American zoologist Dian Fossey to the renowned silverback gorillas of Rwanda, which she subsequently studied in the wild for over 18 years.

Fossey died mysteriously and her killers were never found. But her life in the wild was made into the movie Gorillas in the Mist which Root helped to shoot.

Root’s introduction to mountain gorillas almost ended his filmmaking career when one chest-beating silverback lunged at him and took a chunk of his calf.

According to his 2012 autobiography titled Ivory, Apes and Peacocks: Animals, Adventure and Discovery in the Wild Places of Africa, the primate burst out of the forest cover towards him “like a Doberman on steroids.”

Root survived, but the gorilla incident is just one of the many run-ins he had in his illustrious career.

Alan Root at work filming wildlife. FILE PHOTO

Alan Root at work filming wildlife. FILE PHOTO | NMG


There was the leopard that pounced and bit him on his backside while filming in the Serengeti; the angry hippo that bit off a “Coke bottle” sized chunk of his thigh while he was filming underwater in Mzima Springs in Tsavo West National Park, and there was even a puff adder whose bite gave him an anaphylactic shock that nearly killed him.

He survived but lost his right index finger which meant he had to reconfigure how to fly his helicopter, steer his air balloon, drive his Land Rover and even how to fly his Cessna airplane.

Born in London on May 12, 1937, Root’s life was ordinary, until when at nine years old in 1947, his father moved the family to Kenya to manage a corned beef factory.

But Root’s affinity for animals was already apparent even back then as he kept a host of animals, including snakes, in the family’s backyard in London.

His moving to Africa just increased his curiosity and so it was no surprise that he’d make movies on wildlife or that he and Joan transformed their home on the shores of Lake Naivasha into an animal sanctuary.

Root started making films about animals in Kenya in 1946 in his early teens, using a simple eight millimetre camera. He soon dropped out of school at aged 16, having found his passion and figuring out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

His first professional film job was working with the German father and son team of Bernard and Michael Grizmek on a project filming the Seregeti Reserve for the Frankfurt Zoo.

The younger Grizmek died in a freak accident when his small plane collided with a vulture and crashed. The devastated senior Grizmek stopped the project until Root took up the challenge and finished shooting the film.

Storytelling skill

Serengeti Shall Not Die was the final product and it earned Root an Academy Award for Best Documentary film in 1969. That win set him on a path that led to his making films produced by the BBC, National Geographic and Anglia for its TV series Survival.

But what made the films outstanding was Root’s storytelling skill. Every film had a narration that allowed audiences to learn about the subject matter be it hippos, leopards or wildebeests’ ecosystems and their lifestyles.

In the words of Sir David Attenborough, writing in 1979, “Alan Root understands animals better than many zoologists do.”

In fact, a number of film critics have claimed that Root’s cinematic work with wildlife rivalled that of Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau.

Root may be more famous outside Kenya and Africa than within, but he his legacy and treasure trove of films speaks volumes on his work and relationship with the country and continent.
At the funeral of his first wife Joan, Root is said to have wept and lamented over what he called the “heartbreaking holocaust” against African wildlife. He described the cause of wildlife conservation a “disastrous failure.”

When he and Joan divorced in 1990, she had remained in their Lake Naivasha home. And it was there that she was murdered, apparently because of her campaign to save Lake Naivasha. The murder case was never solved.

The American journalist Mark Seed wrote about her murder in a Vanity Fair article and then a book, both entitled Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa.

Unfortunately, capturing the behind-the-scenes story of her role in Root’s film career.

But most of Root’s life was revealed years before in an extended essay written in 1999 in The New Yorker by George Plimpton entitled The Man who was Eaten Alive.