Interview with iconic cameraman and author Alan Root.
wildlife filming, working with the Legendary
Armand Denis, David Attenborough, Survival
and the BBC.
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Alan, in your book you talk about Garamba National Park, it sounds spectacular, almost like the Serengeti?
Garamba is spectacular, but it is not a rival for the Serengeti. It did have spectacular herds of elephant & buffalo, many hundreds strong, and even in the thousands of for buffalo. But there is much less smaller game, nothing like the numbers on the Serengeti. It was a spectacular place, but now it is mostly gone. The rhinos have all gone (They numbered in their thousands in 1900, and 500 in 1970, but are believed to have been wiped out by 2006), and the elephants being massacred still, most recently from a helicopter.
Is there any hope it could be returned to its former glory?
No, not for former glory. Some of it could come back if the land is still free, available and safe. African Parks is looking after it, but it is a very difficult job and there is little if any income from tourism, and there is little prospect of tourists going to visit.
I first visited Kenya 1980s, and there was still wildlife wandering all over the country, but no longer. Is the future of wildlife in enclosed parks?
The future of wildlife is on private land. National Parks & organisations are inefficient underfunded and corrupt. The best hope is on private ranches and community reserves with locals with strong vested interest in making it work.
Is wildlife tourism the way forward? Does wildlife need to pay for itself?
Wildlife does need to pay for itself and it some places it needs to pay better than alternate uses. Private land, huge ranches and conservancies that rely on income from tourism are the best hope.
The other way to make wildlife pay is via hunting.
I can't understand why anyone would hunt. There is absolutely nothing brave or macho about hunting, but the hunters often have huge amounts of money. However the problem is that hunting is seldom operated in a ‘clean' way, and it is usually terribly corrupt. Tanzania makes huge amounts from hunting, but over hunting and corruption are appalling. It needs very careful regulation. Money from hunting can far exceed tourism, but it easily corrupted and many places are hunted to death.
Have you heard about the plan to rejoin Nakuru & Naivasha - Is it possible?
It has been talked about for years. There are large ranches with wildlife all in private lands, and most of the rest is forest reserve, so it could be done. Something similar is already happening in northern Kenya, where private ranches that are switching to conservation & tourism and joining up.
I imagine that the main problem would be at Naivasha with flower growing?
The north side of Lake Naivasha is still clear of flower farms, so it would still be possible.
You knew many of the great conservationists of the last 50 years? Is there a new breed coming through?
I certainly hope so; there are some youngsters, but it is a very tough time to be doing it with so much negativity at the moment. There are some great schemes encouraging conservancies. Great things are happening in Northern Kenya with the Northern Rangelands Trust which is almost exploding as there are so many areas that want to join in, and be helped to turn their land into conservancies to look after wildlife and make some money as well. It is an uphill job, but good things are happening.
Many of the headlines in conservation are about the ‘show ponies', tigers, rhinos etc. Does it detract from real causes?
From a fund raising point of view, flagships are important to raise money to fund other projects. EG Elephant, rhino & big cats are important for raising the money, but a lot of the money if used for other projects too.
Is there a solution to poaching? The law of supply and demand states that we need to cut demand, and until that happens, they will find a way to supply that demand.
Demand from China is coming from lots of nouveau riche, who have ingrained demand and it is like trying to turn a super tanker around; it takes a long time, but we don't have much time. We have taken Chinese conservation organisations to Kenya to show them what is happening.
Where else in Southern & West Africa have you been? Are there any less well known or unvisited destinations that are more like how Kenya was in the 1970s?
The rainforests of DRC are still largely unexplored; Angola is very interesting as is Mozambique. They are much harder to access and to work in, but still many interesting stories to be found.
When you were younger, you collected some wild animals as pets, but that is now frowned upon. How are the youth of today meant to get that same enthusiasm without some of those opportunities?
Zoos are very important and TV too, if it is the right kind of programme, but TV is nothing like seeing the real thing. I don't like animals in captivity, but zoos are ambassadors and do have an important role to play. There is nothing like seeing an elephant up close, how rough its skin is, how they smell, and the incredible show when it has a pee; that captures kids more than anything else.
Are you working now?
I make a few small films for charities, but not really working. I have 2 boys and we live on Lewa Conservancy, so I am enjoying seeing them growing up with wildlife.
With all the technology nowadays, what could you have done?
It is so much easier today; filming the termites nest was a major challenge, but would be much easier now with fibre optics, low temperature lights and incredible high film speed/digital and low-light cameras.
I know you are a big fan of some of the new TV presenters, the grab and wave it around brigade. Who do you rate nowadays?
I don't have TV, and haven't for 15 years. I caught the beginning of so called ‘charismatic presenters', crocodile wrestling and all that crap, but they don't do it for me. I do watch the BBC Attenborough series; I buy them all on DVD. Jonathan Scott & Simon King are pretty good wannabees, but ‘David' is impossible to match; he has so much knowledge and gravitas. Many of the others are desperately trying to catch up to the master, which is sad as it means there is too much gurning and arm waving trying to get attention. Maybe they will slow down when Attenborough hangs up his shorts and stop trying to draw so much attention to themselves.
You almost (or perhaps you did) invent the idea of hot air ballooning in East Africa. Are there any other forms of transport that could be used like airships or chair lifts?
I always wanted to have airship on Nile, to travel between 2 great lodges in the 1950 - 60s, but they are difficult beasts. The trouble is that to have a decent payload the ship would have to be huge and full of expensive helium, which is just impractical.
Hot air ballooning is out of hand now; the Mara is full of the dam things. I am sometimes a bit ashamed that I started it; however it does bring in huge revenue. And it is just, just for 1 hour in the morning so it doesn't ruin the day, but they have allowed too many.