Keeping wildlife in the wild

Animal protection and conservation reaches new heights in Sacramento

Born Free USA CEO Will Travers.

Born Free USA CEO Will Travers.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

NEXT WEEK’S TOPIC: hiking around Sac

When Joy and George Adamson successfully released Elsa, the orphaned lion cub they raised and rehabilitated, back into Kenya’s wild savannah in 1959, they could not have imagined the impact their extraordinary efforts would have on the future of wildlife conservation.

Seven years later, British husband-and-wife actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna brought the Adamsons’ story to the big screen in Born Free. The Academy Award-winning film changed public perception of lions from man-eaters to creatures with personalities and character like those of our domesticated companions.

The making of the film changed the lives of the actors, too. Over the course of a year, they lived and filmed on the wildlife-rich slopes of Mount Kenya, working closely with the film’s lion stars to replicate the extraordinary relationship between the Adamsons and Elsa, capturing the couple’s passion to set Elsa free. The experience would transform Travers and McKenna into two of the world’s most influential animal activists.

In 1984, the untimely death of a young, solitary African elephant at the London Zoo moved Travers, McKenna and their son, Will, to found the organization Zoo Check, which became the Born Free Foundation in the United Kingdom in 1994. Now in 2008, the organization’s determination to keep wildlife in the wild comes to Sacramento.

Nestled among a quiet residential neighborhood on S Street, the Animal Protection Institute has provided four decades of authoritative leadership lobbying for improved protection for animals, particularly the treatment of circus animals and exotic pets. As forward-thinking organizations do, API and Born Free USA began working together on wildlife conservation issues and merged in November 2007.

The merger created a powerhouse organization for global wildlife conservation by combining API’s political savvy with Born Free’s access to international leaders and “rock stars” of the wildlife conservation movement—among them, Dr. Cynthia Moss, leading elephant conservationist in Africa; Dr. Richard Leakey, world-famous conservationist and anthropologist; and Valmik Thapar, one of India’s most famous conservationists and tiger experts.

Striking the right balance between animal welfare and global wildlife conservation efforts will remain a primary focus of Born Free USA, explained CEO Will Travers. He outlined many of the organization’s successful programs: In 2002, virtually every marine-turtle nest along much of the Tanzania’s coastline was raided for eggs, until East African marine biologist Catherine Muir began the Marine Turtle and Dugong Research and Habitat Protection Program. Today, her efforts protect up to 94 percent of the nests along 400 miles of shoreline and have helped 80,000 turtle hatchlings survive and swim free. Born Free provides key funding for this program, which annually costs roughly the same as a snazzy Lexus.

One day, Travers and his friend Ian Redmond—a renowned primatologist who worked with the late Dian Fossey in Rwanda and introduced Sir David Attenborough of Planet Earth to mountain gorillas—considered how to help stem the inexorable slide of the great apes toward extinction. Redmond asked the deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme if he would provide the platform for great-ape conservation on the world stage. He agreed, and with the help of Born Free, the Great Ape Survival Project quickly became a UN initiative, resulting in millions of dollars in funding.

Most recently, Travers returned from South Africa, where Born Free relocated a pair of leopards from the Monaco Zoo into its Big Cat Rescue Centre at the Shamwari Wildlife Reserve. Prince Albert of Monaco offered the pair to Born Free so the leopards could live their lives as they were meant to.

“My job is to convince people that a healthy natural world is a world with room for wildlife in it. Born Free gives every compassionate citizen the chance to make a difference,” said Travers in his signature British accent, peppered with his no-nonsense approach.

“Time is short,” he continued. “We cannot afford to wait. I believe that, as Dr. King said, ‘There is the fierce urgency of now.’ So I invite those who wish to stand up and make a positive difference to the world we hold in trust to contact me. Let’s find a way to change animals’ lives for good.”