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If Not For a Baby Elephant: How a Wildlife Charity, The Born Free Foundation, Was Born

‘An elephant never forgets… and it never forgets it was born free.’  Virginia McKenna

As she approached her 90th year British actress turned wildlife conservationist Virginia McKenna  (born 7 June 1931) shared the story of how a sweet little elephant named Pole Pole forever changed her life and inspired a couple (she and her husband Bill Travers, who passed away in 1994) to set up a charity foundation to honor         ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’.


Virginia McKenna


Virginia McKenna, OBE, founder of Born Free Foundation:

“How we met Pole Pole is a very, very long time ago, in 1968. My husband Bill was…started to make documentary films and although this was not going to be a documentary film it was going to be a film. We were able to use two teenage elephants that Daphne and David Sheldrick had in Tsavo National Park (Africa). They were orphans and we needed a young one for the film and David Sheldrick said they have just captured a little elephant from the wild as a gift to London Zoo.”


Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna (his wife) & Pole Pole the elephant


“So we went to Nairobi and there was this little elephant absolutely distraught as you can imagine, bashing itself against the side of its pen. And I said to David, I remember distinctly saying, um, ‘how could we ever use the poor little thing. I mean she is so terrified.’ He said, ‘If I could have her for a couple of days I think I could calm her and reassure her and you will be able to use her in the film.’

“And she became the most gentle, adorable, sweet, trusting little elephant that I certainly have ever met. Pole Pole was her name and that means Slowly Slowly in Swahili. She became the star of our film ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’.



“Come the end of filming which took six weeks, um, we asked if we could buy her and give her to the Sheldrick’s so that she could join the little group. And they said, ‘Yes, yes you can buy her but we will have to capture another baby.’

“It was absolutely agonizing, I cannot tell you that we were distraught because the thought of this little friend being betrayed, as we felt, by us and, um, being sent to London Zoo was just the worst thing in the world. However we could not allow another little one to be torn from its family, not only for the sake of that little individual but the sake of the family because there is such a fantastic family relationship that elephants had. ”



“Twelve years later we had a letter from Daphne Sheldrick saying she had heard that something might happen to Pole Pole at London Zoo and could we go and find out. That is when we sprang into action and I found an organization, a group in South Africa who had a reserve and would love to have taken her there and teach her to be free again to join the wild herd.”

“Unfortunately the zoo would not agree but they did say they would send her to Whipsnade where there were elephants. And so come the day of the move, compromised though it was, they came and they shut the door (to her travel crate). Unfortunately they kept her standing for many, many hours (there was an infection building from a portion of the dart used to sedate her and it turned to sepsis) and she collapsed.”

“POLE POLE NEVER MADE IT TO WHIPSNADE. A few days later she was put down.”


“When Bill and I went to London Zoo the second time and we did manage to see her and she came and touched our hands… probably one of the most agonizing moments I can remember, because mixed-up with the joy of memories of being with her in Africa and our wonderful, unique friendship with her, I have never really lost that terrible sense of guilt that we let her down (Virginia tears up). And I know that she would understand, in a way, because she would not want another little elephant to be taken from its family. She would understand, um, and there are people who understand that.”

“But that is why when I see London Zoo’s elephant enclosure empty of elephants, that is, for me, the most wonderful thing to see. I went there last year and it has got no elephants and I hope it never, never will again. That should be her legacy.



Born Free  Elephants in Crisis  Visit:  #ElephantsInCrisis

copyright BornFree Foundation 2018. Used under the Creative Commons License.                                          Transcribed from Story of Pole Pole by the Born Free Foundation

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Images: from CC video Story of Pole Pole & from CC Wiki: An Elephant Called Slowly


baby African elephant, Pole Pole

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