AT a time of concern over the future of life on Earth due to the climate crisis, wildlife conservationist Will Travers maintains that there are still reasons to be cheerful.
He will be in conversation with actress and animal lover Rula Lenska in Henley tonight (Friday) about 40 years of the Born Free Foundation and its successes.
Will says: “Rula is passionate about so many causes, including wildlife, but she’s also a very successful actress, so we’re probably going to mix in some showbiz anecdotes and namedrop people as well as talk about animals we’ve met.”
The foundation was started by his parents, actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, in 1984.
Twenty years earlier, the couple had travelled to Kenya with their family to star in the film Born Free, playing Joy and George Adamson.
The film was based on Joy’s book of the same name and told how the couple had raised an orphaned lion cub called Elsa and then released her back into the wild.
The actors were so moved by the plight of wild animals that they launched the charity Zoo Check, which later became the Born Free Foundation.
Now Will is executive president and his mother is a trustee.
“I have lots of good memories and they’re quite sharp actually because we were there for nearly a year and I had my sixth birthday there,” recalls Will, now 65.
“Joy Adamson, who wrote the book, went to dozens of publishers, all of whom turned it down, and then she got to Collins & Harvill who said, ‘Yes, we’ll take a risk on this’. It sold millions around the world and was translated into dozens of languages.
“The legacy of the work of George and Joy Adamson through the stories that they told has lived on.”
Rula says: “I feel like I’ve been part of Born Free for all my life. I first got in touch with them for Into the Blue, which was releasing dolphins from captivity and then Elefriends [an elephant protection charity].
“Virginia has always been an icon of mine and I’m proud to be part of such a fantastic organisation.” The foundation has tackled many thorny issues.
Will says: “Wildlife is in a parlous state with a million species facing extinction and we still think that it’s an inexhaustible supply of natural capital that can be exploited.
“We think we can trophy hunt and sell ivory, we think we can convert rainforest into soya farms to feed chickens and cows and we are mad.
“As an example, in South Africa, there’s an issue with canned hunting, which is where large predators are raised in captivity specifically to be shot by trophy hunters at a discount because they’ve been raised in captivity.”
Rula adds: “Everything is connected and the way that we treat people in the world today is parallel to the way that we treat animals.
“Every sentient being on this planet has the right to freedom and peace. Man did not come on to this Earth to conquer and kill everything else, we should be living in harmony with animals.
“But people are so greedy and so lacking in thought for the future. We knew about global warming 40 years ago and what’s been done about it?”
The pair will discuss Born Free’s many success stories. The foundation chartered the first direct flight from the UK to the Turks and Caicos Islands, working to free dolphins from captivity.
Will says: “The project was called Into the Blue and it was one of the biggest cheques I’ve ever signed.”
Rula adds: “There are no longer any dolphins in captivity in this country and that’s wholly down to the Born Free Foundation.
“Having swum with dolphins in the wild in Australia, I can tell you it is something you never forget.
“I mean, we were just lucky to find a place that had seen no tourists at all and these beautiful animals, with their babies, chose to come up to us out of curiosity.
“In the same way, riding elephants is still using them as entertainment for humans.
“I’m sure everybody is now much more aware of eco-tourism, where the animals aren’t exploited.
“You can go and walk at a distance at a sanctuary or at the orphanage in Kenya which was originated by Dame Daphne Sheldrick.
“I’m absolutely passionate about all animals but I have to say, elephants hold the top place because I’ve spent quite a lot of time with them, particularly at Daphne’s orphanage, where I have three adopted babies.
“I’ve been out watching them reintegrate back into the wild and the love and the caring that surrounds them is incredibly touching to see.”
“I totally agree,” adds Will. “In fact in 1979 I went on a little private expedition, where four of us drove across the Sahara in a falling-apart Land Rover and got to Nairobi and the only person I could think of going to see was Daphne.
“So we turned up and the first thing she said to me was, ‘Please go and have a shower’.
“I heard that there was a feature film being made and that they might have an opening for someone to be one of the technical assistants so I just hung on for a few months, praying that I would get into this thing.
“During that time, Daphne began to build what is now the famous orphanage just outside Nairobi. She didn’t have any facilities at all then — nothing.
“We did create a little bit of a stir in Nairobi because Daphne’s husband David had unfortunately died some years earlier and then suddenly here was this young man, driving her around town, opening the car door for her, waiting for her to come out of the shops with bags — you can imagine the whispers.”
So what can the audience expect tonight?
Will says: “I’m hoping that people will have a lovely evening but that they’ll go home and feel energised, feel like, ‘You know what, even in this time of significant global doom and gloom, there are good things happening’.
“I always say that you can’t put goodness on hold. Seize the day and if you can do something, do it now.”
Rula says: “The show’s not going to be all heavy — there will be moments of lightness.”
Will asks: “Rula, you’ve worked with the great and the good, but if you can remember, ask me at some stage about Des O’Connor.”
“I will,” she replies. “And you can ask me, ‘What about your story with Les Dawson and John Inman…”
• Born Free, an evening with Rula Lenska and Will Travers is at the Kenton Theatre tonight (Friday) at 7pm. Tickets cost £30 and the show has a running time of two hours. For more information and to buy tickets, call the box office on (01491) 525050 or visit kentontheatre.co.uk