Wildlife Activist's Extraordinary Life, Untimely Death Wildlife activist and filmmaker Joan Root was murdered in 2006 at her home in Nairobi, Kenya, when invaders broke through her bedroom window and shot her with AK-47s. The crime was never solved, but her life and violent death is the subject of a new book, Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa.
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Wildlife Activist's Extraordinary Life, Untimely Death

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Wildlife Activist's Extraordinary Life, Untimely Death

Wildlife Activist's Extraordinary Life, Untimely Death

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, David Lynch puts pictures to music. But first, early in 2006, Mark Seal read a brief - very brief - story about the murder of a woman in Kenya. Joan Root was 69. She lived on a gorgeous lake in Kenya and used to be in wildlife movies. Mark Seal joins us from the studios of Colorado Public Radio. What did that story set off in you?

Mr. MARK SEAL (Author): Well, it was a one-paragraph mention in the New York Times fax. And it just said conservationist killed, 69 years old, murdered in her home on Lake Naivasha from mysterious reasons. And it also said she and her husband, Alan, had been nominated for an Oscar for a film they had made about a termite mound.

I just - I said, wow, who was this woman and what did she do and why did she die?

SIMON: Mark Seal, let us explain, has written a book about Joan Root's life and death called "Wildflower." She was famously beautiful. Her husband, Alan Root, a famous daredevil, and in a way they fell in love over a baby elephant.

Mr. SEAL: They did. Joan and her father, who ran safaris in Kenya, had found a baby elephant in the bottom of a well. And Joan had a magical way with animals - she grew up in the wild - and she was determined to save this baby elephant. So she and Alan - Alan came over to help her save this elephant and the elephant sadly died. And when the elephant died, she turned to Alan and they fell in love.

SIMON: We should explain: Alan kept a baby bongo in his room. Not one Ricky Ricardo played at the nightclub, yeah.

Mr. SEAL: Exactly. There's antelopes and Alan had not only kept a baby bongo in his room when he was teenager, he kept a baboon in his room and a snake farm in his backyard. These were two nature lovers who came together as a team and they became, arguably, the most famous wildlife filmmakers in the world.

SIMON: They were bigger in the 1970s than Steve Irwin was a few decades later.

Mr. SEAL: They were huge. They were the first to film wildlife without human interaction. Before "March of the Penguins" and "Winged Migration," they were filming animals doing what animals do.

SIMON: They loved each other, but I think it's safe to say that when it came to marital fidelity, Alan Root imitated some of the beasts that he photographed.

Mr. SEAL: Yes. Alan had an affair with another woman and they divorced. And Joan was absolutely devastated. But then, what's amazing about this woman is no matter what happened to her, she would always rise up stronger, more resolute. And the second half of her life, I think, was even more amazing than the first.

SIMON: Tell us about that, because she set up camp in Lake Naivasha.

Mr. SEAL: Yes. You drive out of Nairobi and you look across this amazing, the great Rift Valley, the cradle of civilization, and you see this lake shimmering in the distance like a silver mirage. Joan and Alan had lived there in the happiest part of their marriage. And after their divorce, Joan went home to Naivasha, but things had changed. It was like she was walking into a nightmare.

This lake, it's like Doctor Doolittle times one thousand. It's filled with hippos; there's giraffe in the area, zebra; there's 350 species of birds. But when she went back it was overrun with poachers. The fish were being poached, the wildlife she loved were being slaughtered, and she was seeing her world disappear.

SIMON: And she just didn't accept it silently.

Mr. SEAL: This, I think, was the turning point in Joan Root's life. This shy, quiet woman stood up and did something about the situation.

SIMON: She did?

Mr. SEAL: She and also some of the other landowners around the lake created what was called the taskforce. Joan wanted to rehabilitate a group of poachers to make them legal fishermen. And what they eventually did is they created a team of these men - half legal fishermen and half illegal fishermen, or poachers, to police the lake.

SIMON: Security situation in her place on the lake sounds, well, unendurable by most standards.

Mr. SEAL: Right. With the influx of unemployed and destitute people came an epidemic of crime. Joan had been carjacked, she had been broken into. It was so bad that the white landowners around the lake had taken to putting bars on their windows and steel doors in their homes, but she wouldn't leave.

SIMON: And why? I mean, this is Joan Root. She could have - I'm filling in the blanks here - picked up and gone to Britain.

Mr. SEAL: She could have done anything. She could've gone anywhere. But I feel like she had lost one love of her life - her husband - and I don't think she was going to lose the second love of her life - her land. And so she stayed.

SIMON: The official finding of the court was that some people broke into her house. It was a robbery attempt gone bad.

Mr. SEAL: Exactly. At 1:00 a.m. on January 13, 2006, two men wearing masks or hoods came walking down her property through this little orphanage where she kept her animals on the mend. And they walked up to her bedroom - and by then her bedroom was surrounded by steel doors and bars on the windows and she was essentially living like an animal in a cage. That's how bad crime had gotten there.

And so these two men - one with an AK-47, the other with a panga, a one-sided machete - said open up. She wouldn't do it. There was a security team living on her property by then, and she called the security man who was heading this team. And so he told her get on the floor and next thing he could hear her on her cell phone, he heard the gunshots. They unloaded the AK-47 in the windows and Joan Root was dead.

SIMON: Doesn't sound like a robbery.

Mr. SEAL: No, it doesn't. The police were convinced that it was a robbery, but all of her friends said and insisted that it was an assassination attempt because of her conservation activities on the lake. Four men were arrested. And then at the trial the judge said the evidence was virtually non-existent. They were essentially acquitted.

And so he let the men go free, and to this day Joan's death remains a mystery and whoever did it is still at large.

SIMON: What did Alan Root wind up doing with her ashes?

Mr. SEAL: Alan planted the ashes on her land with a fig tree over them.

SIMON: And what did he say - all tied with the roots or something?

Mr. SEAL: Yes, that was great. You know, Alan is a great wit and he said she'll always be surrounded by roots. And I went to the memorial. It was about a month after Joan's death. Hundreds of wildlife filmmakers, naturalists, local Kenyans - black and white - were there to mourn and to celebrate this incredibly brave and, you know, courageous woman.

And it was just one more domino to fall in a way of this beautiful country that has had so much violence and so much turmoil in recent years.

SIMON: Mr. Seal, thanks so much.

Mr. SEAL: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: Mark Seal. His new book is "Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa."

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