Joan Root

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Joan Root (18 January 1936 — 13 January 2006) was a Kenyan conservationist, ecological activist and Oscar-nominated filmmaker. [1] With her film-maker husband, Alan Root she made a series of acclaimed wildlife films. The couple divorced in 1981 and Alan Root settled in Nairobi after the divorce was finalized.

Early life[edit]

Born in Nairobi in 1936 as Joan Wells-Thorpe, Root was the daughter of Edmund Thorpe, a British banker who immigrated to Kenya to start a new life and became a successful coffee planter.[2] Mother Lilian (Johnnie) Thorpe née Walker


Decades before wildlife films such as March of the Penguins, Joan and Alan Root pioneered filming animal migrations without interference from human actors. Their movies were narrated by such distinguished actors as Orson Welles, David Niven, James Mason and Ian Holm. Their 1979 Survival documentary, "Mysterious Castles of Clay", was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

The Roots introduced Dian Fossey to the gorillas she would later die trying to save, took Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis over Kenya in their balloon, and covered much of Africa in their famous single-engine Cessna, their amphibious car, and their balloon, at one time equipped with a raft for water landings.[3]

Following the Roots' divorce, she received the Lake Naivasha farm, along with their airplane and a cash settlement for the films they had made together.

After her divorce Joan Root became very involved in conservation projects at and around Lake Naivasha, included supporting scientists and volunteers from the Earthwatch Institute who were monitoring environmental conditions. She also chaired and funded an anti-poaching "Task Force" in the area. The Task Force strictly enforced fishing restrictions around Lake Naivasha, arresting fishermen and confiscating and burning nets, in an attempt to stop overfishing and in particular catches of undersized fish. This was however controversial with locals who saw Lake Naivasha as a necessary and communal resource of food.


In the last years of her life she was subjected to harassment and threats. On one occasion, someone threw a brick through her living-room window and stole her cell phone, but she escaped out the back door. The previous year she had been carjacked and had received threatening text messages on her cell phone, but she refused to leave. After a burglary in September 2005, four months before her murder, Root had steel doors installed on each side of her bedroom, which already had bars on the windows. Still, she wouldn't leave – even when an informant allegedly leaked news that a gang was going to "do" her (kill her) soon.[3]

On 13 January 2006, five days before her 70th birthday, Joan Root was murdered at her home in Lake Naivasha by four men who came to her door carrying AK-47s. There were many suspects such as disgruntled former employees, criminal gangs, organized crime rackets, poachers, those whose economic interests were threatened by her activism and even Task Force members. The four men who were arrested and charged with her murder pleaded not guilty and were acquitted in August 2007.[4] Some involved in the case believe it was a contract killing, but the question of who paid for it remains unanswered.[3]

Last will and testament[edit]

Joan Root had directed in her last will and testament that her land be turned into an admission-free and unfettered wildlife preserve.[citation needed]


Mark Seal's biography of Joan Root, Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Death in Africa was published by Random House in 2009. The book sprang from researching an article for Vanity Fair in 2006 when Seal was intrigued by a news report about the wildlife pioneer's death. Working Title Films optioned the movie rights for Root's story before the book was written.[5]


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