Nairobi, Sept 6 – When young Alan Root, who died in Kenya on 26 August 2017, was told his family would move to East Africa, he burst into tears. “I had just learned every one of the British birds;” he wrote in Ivory, Apes & Peacocks. “Now I was going to a country where that knowledge would be useless.”
Finding even greater glory, he began to capture birds with his father’s 8mm Bolex camera. By 1956 he was filming lily-trotters at Lake Naivasha, and would film hamerkop, honey guides, and the elusive Congo peacock. But it was the hornbill that gave television viewers their first glimpse of his genius.
“Secrets of the African Baobab” told the story of the iconic upside-down tree and a community of creatures who depend on it, from elephants seeking water in its bulbous trunk, to bush babies licking nectar by moonlight. To take us inside the tree, Root removed a small section of the trunk, inserted a pane of glass, and shot thru that window. As a male hornbill delivered insects through a tiny slit on the far side, the female and chicks were trapped inside because the parents had sealed the opening against intruders, especially snakes, never mind a cameraman with an Arriflex beaming a spotlight through the rear window.
After one chick fledged, the second in line resealed the opening. Two days later (the time difference between hatchings) fledgling number two flew, and number three sealed the opening behind it, to fledge two days later. The film, called “Baobab: Portrait of a Tree” in UK, was commissioned by Sir David Attenborough, who said, “Alan, almost singlehandedly in my opinion, made wildlife films grow up.”
Root’s early experience included the BBC On Safari series, featuring Armand and Michaela Denis. After Root and Des Bartlett captured wildlife footage, including the first film of a leopard taking its kill up into a tree, Armand and Michaela “would fly in to a photogenic camp we had prepared for them. The task then would be to get them into safari gear and the open jeep, and make it look as if they had done all the filming.”
Michaela was the sequel of I Married Adventure– Osa Johnson in color. Root felt “her amazing orange hair had been created by some Kodak chemist because it looked so wonderful on Kodachrome.” While he would eventually appear on camera with his first wife, Joan, a pivotal partner to his success, most of their films focused on nature, with keen observations.
Filming Jacana, he saw males incubate and care for chicks, while females had one or two other males, and defended the territory. Yet Peter Scott did not mention this role reversal in his narration because the discovery was unpublished. It was one of many firsts: the nesting behaviour of flamingos, those hornbills, wild dogs hunting and feeding their pups. Yet his films made it to Harvard, where they were seen by Dr. E. O. Wilson, in awe of ants, including the “white ants of Africa.”
Somehow termites did not appeal to advertisers at J. Walter Thompson, where I worked in the Survival Anglia unit. The proposal was rejected, yet no one in New York had seen the film.
In Kenya shortly thereafter, I became a captive audience. One evening at home in Naivasha, Root projected a rough cut, and in his gentle voice, told a story that did not evoke pests, but architects and soldiers, loyal to a Queen. I was enthralled, and wrote a memo praising the film. Root was invited to fly over to present the rough cut to NBC. Renamed “Mysterious Castles of Clay,” the documentary was narrated by Orson Welles, and nominated for an Oscar.
Alas, he would have to be satisfied with his mini-statuette from 1969, for Serengeti Shall Not Die. Tapped by Professor Bernhard Grzimek to complete the movie after his son Michael died, Root befriended the head of Frankfort Zoological Society, and nearly every Christmas, flew the professor up to Kora to stay with George Adamson. When Grzimek died in 1987, Root delivered his eulogy on the edge of Ngorongoro crater. His headstone reads: If you seek his epitaph, look around you.
“So, look around you,” Alan said; “Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, wonderful places that today are better known, and better protected, thanks to Bernhard Grzimek. These are his epitaph.”
What is Alan Root’s epitaph? “He approached everything as if it was his last day on earth,” wrote filmmaker Mark Deeble. He introduced Dian Fossey to her first mountain gorillas, to conclude: “For all her faults, Dian fought for those creatures with every fibre of her tormented mind, heart and body. It was she who put mountain gorillas firmly into the world’s conscience: she was heroic and her legacy is huge.”
I suggest a monument of films, a festival of ideas for conservation initiatives, a spur of high regard for magnificent creatures we seem bound to lose. One of his first docs, Enchanted Isles was commissioned by Anglia’s executive producer Aubrey Buxton after he accompanied Prince Phillip to the Galapagos in 1964; both were struck by the need for scientific research and preservation. HRH agreed to narrate the documentary to build awareness. For production quality reasons, it was Alan’s least favorite, so I’ve put it on the bottom. Then Mzima Springs, Safari By Balloon, Two in the Bush, his trilogy on the Congo, A Season in the Sun, Secrets of the African Baobab, Mysterious Castles of Clay, with Year of the Wildebeeste on top.
“Imagine,” he said to me, “how great it would be to have a film record of the time when 40 million bison migrated across America’s prairies. There is still time in Africa to do it.” That was in 1981. We’ve still got gnus but giraffe, cheetah, lion, leopard and rhino are on a serious slide.
By 2012 he saw wildlife habitats shrinking at an alarming rate. “The exponential growth of our own heedless and destructive species is a problem that has never been seriously addressed; “Root said; “There are countless people who are aware of, and concerned about the loss of wildlife habitat and species, but without commitment from business leaders and governments to reconsider the many projects that threaten the environment, and particularly to slow the cancer of population growth, we face an impoverished, and ultimately uninhabitable planet. So for me the most important factor is to educate those masses and get them on side in the struggle to influence politicians. I think wildlife films have made a contribution in that battle, but it is a depressingly uphill fight.”
I asked Alan why the Survival film films didn’t convert jillions. After all, Safari by Balloon alone was seen by 98 million people in 26 countries. “It’s vital to have a Call To Action at the end of the film,” he said. “Professor Grzimek recognized this with his TV series in Germany. At the end he would hold up a white card with an address, where to send money to fund good conservation initiatives.” Many films do have a communications component nowadays, a Call To Action, but Alan was left to conclude, “…wildlife conservation has proved to be a disastrous failure.” I believe he would love it if we proved him wrong.
Alan Root is survived by Fran Michelmore, and their boys, Myles and Rory. Several Root documentaries can be seen online, including Year of the Wildebeest, Safari by Balloon, and Mysterious Castles of Clay. Ivory, Apes & Peacocks is available on Amazon kindle.