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Born Free's History

On the set of BORN FREE - (c) Columbia Pictures
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The Born Free Foundation charity has a unique and very special history. In 1964, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna traveled to Kenya to star in the classic wildlife film Born Free, based on the best-selling book by Joy Adamson. Released in 1966, the film told the true story of George and Joy Adamson's fight to return Elsa the lioness to the wild.

The Adamsons' story was enjoyed by tens of millions around the globe, inspired a generation, and changed the world's attitude to lions forever. Making Born Free profoundly affected Bill and Virginia. Working with George and Joy influenced the rest of their lives. Their close contact with the lions sparked a lifelong commitment to wildlife and they realized wild animals belong in the wild, not incarcerated in captivity.

After Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers' time in Kenya making the film Born Free, Bill began to produce wildlife documentaries and films including An Elephant Called Slowly (1969) also set in Kenya, and featuring Bill and Virginia with Pole Pole ("Po-lee Po-lee"), a little elephant calf.

Pole Pole was only two when she was snatched from her wild family as a gift from the then Kenyan government to London Zoo. When filming was over Bill and Virginia did everything they could to prevent the move, but the little elephant calf was sent to London.

Pole Pole, London Zoo (c) T Blackbrow/Daily Mail
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In 1982 — 13 years later — Bill and Virginia went to see her there. Difficult to manage with no companions of her own kind, Pole Pole frustratedly paced her barren enclosure, prematurely aged by captivity. They called her name. She stopped, turned, and came to them, her trunk outstretched, straining to touch their reaching hands. Even in her distress, and after all these years, she remembered them. "It was a heartbreaking and life-changing moment," recalls Virginia.

Bill and Virginia renewed their campaign to give Pole Pole a better life, but in 1983, aged just 16, she collapsed and died. Yet wild elephants can live for more than 60 years. Determined that Pole Pole's short life and untimely death should not be in vain, in 1984 Bill and Virginia launched Zoo Check with their son Will Travers, the charity that has evolved into the Born Free Foundation. Dismissed at the time as a "nine-day wonder," Born Free is today an international force in wildlife conservation and animal protection, campaigning to save elephants, big cats, wolves, dolphins, bears, primates, and numerous other species. Born Free upholds a dynamic presence in international animal rescues, saving animals from miserable conditions, rehabilitating them, and either providing for their lifetime care in a sanctuary or, whenever possible, rehoming them to the wild. And, thanks to Born Free's efforts, there are now no more elephants at London Zoo.