Two people who have been at the forefront of that mission are Virginia McKenna OBE, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, and Sue Sheward MBE, Chairwoman of Rotarian Action Group for Endangered Species (RAGES) and Founder of Orangutan Appeal UK. We met with them to talk about their life-changing work.
The film Born Free, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in June, depicts the enchanting and dramatic true story of a real-life couple that raised an orphaned lion cub to adulthood and successfully released her back into the wild.
Life then began to imitate art when the film’s stars Virginia McKenna OBE and Bill Travers MBE established the international wildlife charity Born Free Foundation, along with their eldest son Will Travers OBE, 32 years ago.
The foundation strives to save lives, stop suffering and protect species in the wild. The foundation has helped to achieve many memorable milestones over the years, such as securing protection for lions under the US Endangered Species Act.
The fight doesn’t stop there though; there are still many hurdles to cross and action needs to be taken globally as endangered species still face extinction.
Across the world, lions and big cats are kept in terrible conditions and treated as pets. Because they have been nurtured this way, their social, hunting and territorial instincts are suppressed so returning to the wild becomes virtually impossible.
However, although there is a long fight to be had, the foundation has seen some success stories too. These include two rescued lionesses that have settled in well into their new home at the Born Free Foundation’s Big Cat Rescue and Education Centre in South Africa, following an epic 6,000-mile journey across two continents.
Eight-year-old sisters, Maggie and Sonja, first travelled from Natuurhulpcentrum (NHC), a wild animal rescue and rehabilitation centre in Belgium, which had been their home for 18 months, after their confiscation from a German circus. Maggie needed the infected end of her tail amputated, and after seven weeks of intensive treatment Maggie’s tail eventually healed.
NHC was delighted when the Born Free Foundation offered them a permanent home at the Born Free sanctuary within Shamwari Game Reserve on South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
We seek a better, more compassionate future, and end to the suffering of millions of animals kept in captive facilities around the world.”
When asked about what future plans lie ahead for Born Free, Virginia explained with passion that 2017 is an exciting year, as the foundation will see the launch of ‘Beyond the Bars.’ Commenting on the heart of the campaign she said, “It’s going to challenge the ongoing exploitation of wild animals in circuses; kept in the home as exotic pets; and held in captivity in thousands of zoos. We seek a better, more compassionate future and an end to the suffering of millions of animals kept in captive facilities around the world.”
To help raise awareness and educate on conservation matters, Virginia and her son, Will, will be attending the annual Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland Conference, which takes place at Manchester Central.
They will be discussing the story of the Born Free Foundation on the Saturday, and Virginia comments, “The foundation was inspired by myself and my late husband Bill’s iconic portrayal of Joy and George Adamson in the 1966 film Born Free.”
“At the conference I will explain how from small beginnings, the foundation has grown into a global force for wildlife.”
“It has, and always will, focus on rescuing and caring for mistreated and abused individual animals, protecting vulnerable wildlife and their fragile habitats. We will continue to campaign for the end of the illegal ivory trade, to reduce the deadly impact of trophy hunting and stop the exploitation of wild animals used in the entertainment industry.”
Rotary is no stranger to supporting endangered species and the Rotarian Action Group for Endangered Species (RAGES) initiative joined forces with the Born Free Foundation back in 2015 to utilise their expertise in conservation, passion for wildlife welfare and community spirit.
The campaign, dubbed ‘Elephantastic,’ was a huge success; it involved an interactive treasure hunt for children, designed to engage the local community with over 100 local businesses and charities.
A number of high-profile celebrity patrons were enlisted to design and decorate papier-mâché elephants, which were sold at a charity auction.
Celebrity ‘artists’ included Vic Reeves and wife Nancy Sorrell, Amanda Holden, Donal MacIntyre, artist Pollyanna Pickering and Aston Martin racing driver Darren Turner.
Discussing the work RAGES and the support the initiative provides, Rotarian and Chairwoman and Founder of Orangutan Appeal UK, Sue Sheward MBE, commented, “RAGES offers an ideal forum for organisations to work together and through the work we do we’ve identified three projects which are very worthwhile one of which I am proud to say is the Orangutan Appeal UK. I’m delighted to have been voted on to the Board of Directors for RAGES and I’ll do everything I can to assist in the goal of saving our endangered animals.”
The purpose of RAGES is to provide global awareness and focus on action to preserve and protect endangered species. The initiative promises to support and promote new and ongoing joint projects with Rotary and Rotaract clubs located in the areas of concern.
Efforts will start with a particular focus on the rhinos, elephants and mountain gorillas in Africa and the orangutans and pygmy elephants in Borneo, where poaching and habitat loss is a danger not only to these rare animals, but also to the economic survival of the local people who rely on eco-tourism for their livelihood.
Rotarians don’t wait for others, they get on and make a positive difference throughout their daily lives.”
This work forms a close connection to the work of the Orangutan Appeal UK (OAUK), which has been dedicated to the rehabilitation and preservation of orangutans, and the conservation of their habitat for over 17 years.
With passion, Sue explained that for the past nine years OAUK has been running a research programme called the ‘Post Release Monitoring Project’ which has been perfecting the best practices to save the iconic species and return orphaned youngsters to the wild. OAUK was the first to trial the ‘Telemetry tracking devices’, which has helped with reintroduction projects worldwide for all species of apes.
Sue describes how Rotary is best placed to help spread the word about the work RAGES is doing to save the planet from losing some of the world’s most endangered species. She also highlights that Rotary is a great help in giving her cause a voice. She said, “I am so grateful for the support RAGES has provided, this means we’ve been actively involved in education visits to schools, palm oil plantations and villages – giving presentations to encourage people to protect the apes rather than fear or kill them.”
Virginia, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation adds: “All too often we find ourselves saying ‘Oh I wish they would do something about it’. Rotarians don’t wait for others, they get on and make a positive difference throughout their daily lives and as a result, they are one of the most effective organisations I know.
“In that respect, they are like Born Free. We cannot stand by and see wild animals suffer, either in captivity or in the wild. So we get on and do something about it. Let’s make the world a better place – together.”