By Susannah Butter
We met to talk about the plight of elephants but it seemed too good an opportunity not to matchmake. What better mates, I wondered, than the two titans of the animal world, Virginia McKenna, 82, an actress and wildlife campaigner, and David Attenborough, 87, the man who brings the nature she loves into our living rooms.
McKenna made her name in the 1966 film Born Free, where she played a conservationist raising an orphaned lion cub, Elsa. The film was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to animal welfare. Last month she came home from a trip to Ethiopia rescuing primates from captivity.
Today she is with her son, Will Travers, 55, and they respond to my mission with polite amusement. “What a suggestion,” says McKenna. “David Attenborough and I have been out together many times. We were at the Savoy three weeks ago. We are always most genial but frankly going out with him never crossed my mind. I’m in a more campaigning world, he’s the knowledge. I think you ought to eliminate that idea from your head.”
Although she did blush, the heartbreaker.
I was meeting McKenna at the May Fair Hotel to talk about the campaign run by the Independent, the Standard’s sister paper, to save the elephants. In 2011 more African elephants were killed than any other year since 1989. Some 25,000 were poached, which means more than 100 dead animals a day. The figures for 2013 are likely to be even higher. With ivory worth more than £800 a pound, poaching, though still illegal, has turned industrial.
“You become angry about how it’s still going on,” says McKenna. “Elephants have so many human emotions. They mourn the death of others and cover the carcass in branches to bury it. One mother waited three days by the body of her poached calf because she couldn’t bear to leave it. Now I’ve become fearful about their possible extinction.” Recent estimates suggest there are 400,000 African elephants. If current poaching levels continue, most African countries will lose all their elephants in the next decade.
McKenna’s crusade began in 1969, when she and her husband Bill Travers (her co-star in Born Free, who died in 1994) met a two-year-old elephant, Pole Pole (“slowly” in Swahili), while in Kenya working on the film An Elephant called Slowly. More....