Magazine article Geographical

Born to Run: "Is Born Free Naive to Promote Compassionate Conservation?" Asks the Wildlife Foundation's Website Poll. Celebrating Its 21st Birthday, the Charity Best Known for Saving Lions in Africa, Is Well Aware of Claims That It's Too 'Fluffy' or Not a 'Serious' Set Up

Magazine article Geographical

Born to Run: "Is Born Free Naive to Promote Compassionate Conservation?" Asks the Wildlife Foundation's Website Poll. Celebrating Its 21st Birthday, the Charity Best Known for Saving Lions in Africa, Is Well Aware of Claims That It's Too 'Fluffy' or Not a 'Serious' Set Up

Article excerpt

When Virginia McKenna first launched the Born Free Foundation, then called Zoo Check, with her late husband Bill Travers and their son Will, it was branded a nine-day wonder. Twenty-one years on, however, it has a budget of 2.5 million [pounds sterling], 100,000 supporters, and 25 staff based in West Sussex. It has branched out so far that it boasts about 60 projects worldwide, many of which are helping conserve critically endangered species. Indeed, look beyond the eponymous pop ballad so many people caterwaul nostalgically whenever the charity is mentioned and you'll discover that Born Free is a very tenacious wildlife welfare organisation.

"People were all too ready to ridicule and criticise," says Virginia McKenna. "We were dismissed as emotional actors who didn't know anything about animals, but we battled on." The actor and campaigner, now 73, was inspired while starring in Born Free in 1964, a film based on Joy Adamson's book about Elsa the lioness's return to the wild. "Bill said, 'Let's make a documentary about what happened to the lions after the film.'" Protecting animals replaced acting as the couple's priority and, in 1984, they helped form Zoo Check, which campaigned to improve the conditions of captive animals and, ultimately, to phase out traditional zoos entirely. In 1991, the organisation widened its remit to include conservation and became the Born Free Foundation.

"We started in a ten by six office in London," says McKenna's son and Born Free CEO Will Travers. "We probably had around 100 supporters." Despite the organisation's growth, the spirit of Elsa has remained at its heart.

Today, Born Free incorporates seven major campaigns (see Born Free's Worldwide 'Big 7'). One of the less well-known initiatives is its attempt to bring the Ethiopian wolf--the world's rarest canid--back from the brink of extinction. Prior to Born Free's involvement with the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (EWCP), which began ten years ago, the wolf population was thought to be as low as 340. Breeding is slow, with the dominant female of each pack giving birth once a year and a low 60 per cent success rate.

Born Free provides the project with annual funding of 80,000 [pounds sterling], which has helped considerably. Numbers have been increasing, boosted by the discovery in February 2000 of a previously unknown population. "We hit a high point last year of more than 500 animals," Travers tells me. "Then there was a rabies outbreak." Thanks to prompt action by the EWCP and the Ethiopian government, the damage was minimised, but they still lost about 80 animals. EWCP vaccinates and treats domestic dogs to prevent the spread of lethal disease and builds an awareness and understanding of the wolf's role in the local ecosystem.

Famous patrons

The foundation's work has attracted several famous patrons, including Joanna Lumley, Rachel Hunter and the ever popular Martin Clunes (see In conversation, p. 114). "They come to us because they identify with what we're doing," says Travers. He believes Born Free's open and commercial approach keeps the charity alive and gets the message across to a wider public. "We are populist. We exist because our patrons and celebrities help us raise awareness. For example, Coronation Street's Helen Worth helped us set up the intensive-care unit for orphaned elephants in Sri Lanka. When she was on GMTV explaining what she saw, even our office was near to tears. It wouldn't have appealed to so many people if a stuffy conservationist had been on the sofa. It has to work on that level."

McKenna agrees. Last year, former Sex Pistol John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) visited the mountain gorillas in Uganda with Ian Redmond, the charity's senior wildlife consultant. A subsequent TV show raised awareness about gorillas as a whole and also the growing bushmeat crisis. "It was unique, John was so innovative and people who were interested in him watched it, so it attracted new viewers," says McKenna. …

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