The son of a fish-paste factory manager in London’s East End, Alan Root fell in love with ornithology as a Blitz evacuee when he first clapped eyes on the pea-sized egg of a goldcrest, England’s smallest bird. After the war his father got a job manufacturing bully-beef in Kenya, where Root discovered a much richer diversity of birds. While still at school he began recording birdsong and then shot 8mm home movies of the snakes he collected.
Root makes his rise to becoming the world’s greatest wildlife film-maker seem eccentric and easy. A lucky break started him working for Armand Denis, producer of the early TV series On Safari. On a flooded bridge over Uganda’s Ntungwe River a man from Anglia Television interviewed him like this: ‘Would you like the job?’ ‘I’d love it.’ ‘Splendid! Welcome to Survival.’
He knew Joy and George Adamson, the Leakeys, David Attenborough, Bernhard and Michael Grzimek — with whom he made the Oscar-winning film Serengeti Shall Not Die. He and his intense young wife Joan lived for months in the mountains of the Congo and showed Dian Fossey her first gorillas long before she became famous. His encounters were a Who’s Who of almost everyone who mattered in the early evolution of African wildlife films and conservation.
When I was a boy at school in England Root’s films made me deeply homesick for my birthplace in Kenya. But I think his pictures are imprinted on the memory of many children from my generation so profoundly that it’s impossible to think of Africa’s natural world without returning to his famous sequences: the hippos and crocs of the gin-clear Mzima Springs; hornbills nesting in a baobab tree, a cobra spitting at Joan’s glasses, puddle-dwelling killifish, and the interior life of a termite colony in Mysterious Castles of Clay.
His great skill was pioneering techniques that today we take for granted, or which can be got around with technology. In the termite film he frames two flying ants shedding their wings and then pulls gradually back to reveal the plains of Africa shot from 1,000 feet up in a hot-air balloon. He and Joan did all this while still so young their innovative energy seems incredible. Along the way he probably saved the bongo antelope from extinction and discovered an elusive bird called the Congo peacock.
Naturally he’s had his close shaves with beasties. A puff adder bite sent him into anaphylactic shock and lost him a finger; a leopard bit him on the bum; a hippo chomped him with 18-inch teeth. He’s one of very people to have been mauled by a gorilla. Wildlife TV presenters these days would give their eye teeth to build their careers on having had such encounters. But Root developed an observational style that placed all its energy into groundbreaking discovery — his films are still watched by zoology students — so that there was no time for show or the gimmicks of such execrably bad programmes as the BBC’s Planet Earth Live, with Richard Hammond.
Today’s television commissioners assume viewers are idiots who will only watch something if there’s a celebrity ‘name’ involved, and they have reduced the revelations of Root and Attenborough to mere entertainment. Root says this type of documentary
showed that animals — especially snakes, crocodiles and anything poisonous — were something you picked up, basically molested and used to augment your ego. This genre taught viewers almost nothing… and did great damage to a generation of children who grew up learning these attitudes towards wildlife.
For more than six decades Root enjoyed what he calls a ‘sunlit life’ in Africa’s wilderness: in the Ituri forest, in Tsavo’s red desert and in the Pleistocene paradise of the Serengeti. But interwoven with this magical story is a sadder one. His life partner Joan could not have children and the orphaned, animal-obsessed Alan was so desperate to be a father he embarked on an affair with another woman called Jenny who promptly got leukaemia. After Jenny died Joan was horribly murdered at her home on Lake Naivasha in Kenya.
In his dotage Root met a younger woman with whom he has two sons. He has moved his family to Lewa Downs on Mount Kenya’s northern slopes. It’s a timeless landscape, but Root is aware that his magical life has ‘run parallel with a heartbreaking holocaust, as wildlife conservation has proved to be a disastrous failure’.
This wonderful book can’t put it more honestly than that. Not only are the current generation of wildlife film-makers mere pygmies compared to Root, but soon they will not even be able to attempt matching his documentaries because the world he captured has ceased to exist.