You might not recognise the name Alan Root, but you have probably marvelled at his work. For more than 50 years, he has been making seminal wildlife films both in the East Africa of his childhood, and elsewhere, capturing footage of the world’s rarest and least observed animals. His mesmerising documentaries about the baobab, and the wonders of termite mounds are etched memories of my animal-loving childhood. Now he has written a memoir, Ivory, Apes and Peacocks; the title a quote from a much-loved poem by John Masefield.
The quietly spoken and unassuming Root is on a brief trip to London. There is nothing in the least gung-ho about him. And yet his pioneering footage has required a lifetime of both ingenuity, and some serious derring-do. His book features “scrotum-shrinking” encounters with crocodiles. A tangle with a puff adder, which leaves him with one less index finger. A hippo mauling which leaves a hole in his calf he can stick a Coke bottle through. Root downplays these dramas. “When you are attacked by a big animal, you don’t feel any pain. The body goes into instant shock and you just feel a kind of numbness”.
David Attenborough once said that Root “almost single-handedly made wildlife films grow up”. What did he mean? “Well, wildlife documentaries used to be just travelogues, with a presenter taking you on a bit of a tour. They were very shallow, and there was no real information. I felt it wasn’t necessary to have anyone on screen talking about the Serengeti. It’s such an incredible place, why do we want to look at some bozo talking to camera?”.
Alan Root was born a true Cockney in London’s East End in 1937. In search of a better life after the war, his father took a job as the manager of a meat-packing plant in Kenya. His young son—already passionate about wildlife—burst into tears at the news, having just memorised every British bird species. When told that you could see both the glaciers of Mount Kenya, and the snows of Kilimanjaro from the family’s new house, Root cheered up and packed his toboggan.
Despite the lack of sledging, Kenya was a revelation. “When you wake up on your first morning on those endless, open plains covered in wildlife, it’s a sight that knocks you out.” Root took his first wildlife photographs as a schoolboy, strapping his Box Brownie to his binoculars with string and tape, and then with his first cine camera (a wind-up one) discovered a natural talent for filming. Television work was not long in coming.
In 1960, “Serengeti Shall Not Die”, a German film for which Root did much of the camera work won an Oscar for Best Documentary. A few years later, he began making films for the BBC Natural History Unit, under Attenborough’s auspices. Now in his seventies and all but retired from film-making, Root’s sense of adventure remains undimmed. Only the deteriorating political situation is preventing him being in Congo rather than London, working out an itinerary for Ted Turner who wants to see how the millions he is putting into great ape conservation is being spent.
The animal encounters in Ivory, Apes and Peacocks are enthralling, and informative. We discover how flamingos feed, and what it actually sounds like when male gorillas beat their chests (it isn’t the fabled drumming sound). We meet Emily, the chimp who loves housework and Sally the house hippo who curls up by the fire. And there are notable humans too; Joy and George Adamson; Dian Fossey; Robert Redford. And Jackie Kennedy, whom Root takes for a spin in a balloon, only to crash-land her within a few feet of a main railway line.
There is a serious, and desperately sad side to Root’s entertaining life story however. “Wildlife conservation has proved to be a disastrous failure”, he says, solemnly. “We’re losing the battle. Human population growth is the biggest threat, and in the competition for resources, humans will always win.” He hopes his book will help make people aware just how critical the situation is.
“Rhinos are being killed at a completely unsustainable rate that could wipe them out in a matter of years. And there’s tremendous pressure on elephants from ivory poaching.” Root believes passionately that wild regions like the Serengeti are essential for our spiritual well-being, as places “where we can rekindle primeval fires, look back at where our tracks have come from, and perhaps work out where they ought to be going”. But he is pessimistic about our chances of preserving them intact.
The Africa he loves has left deep scars on Root, and not just the visible ones from his brushes with wild animals. In 2006, his wife Joan—with whom he made many of his celebrated documentaries—was brutally murdered in retaliation for her environmental campaigning in Kenya. Root, now happily remarried with two young sons, has lost other dear friends in equally violent fashion. “Africa”, he writes, “exacts such a premium in exchange for its joys”. When I quote this sober phrase to him, he wells up, his thoughts turning to a young colleague, senselessly killed just a few weeks previously.
Cry, the beloved country indeed.
Ivory, Apes & Peacocks (Chatto & Windus, 6th September, £20, h/b, 9780701186036)
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