Born in Kenya, Root was the daughter of Edmund Thorpe, a British coffee farmer and safari guide. She always had a passion for animals and even raised an orphaned elephant calf. Although painfully shy, Root grew up to become an influential wildlife photographer and filmmaker known for her fearlessness in the field. During one shoot, a cobra spit in her face (luckily, she was wearing glasses or the venom would have blinded her). Her face mask was bitten off while filming a hippopotamus underwater, and she allegedly slept with a caracal just so she could capture it on film.
Joan wed Alan Root, an amateur filmmaker, in 1961. Over the course of their two-decade marriage, the couple collaborated on nearly a dozen critically-acclaimed wildlife documentaries and produced footage for the Anglia Television series “Survival.”
Their epic documentary “Year of the Wildebeest” (1975) recorded the migration of 1.5 million ungulates through Tanzania. The filmmakers hid cameras inside tortoise shells to obtain images of the wildebeests thundering over them. For the film “Balloon Safari Over Kilimanjaro” (1976), the Roots photographed the Masai Mara Game Reserve and the 19,340-foot peak of Mount Kilimanjaro — from a hot-air balloon.
The couple was best known for the film “Mysterious Castles of Clay.” The documentary, which was narrated by Orson Welles, showed the inner workings of a termite mound. To fully understand the life of termites, the couple trained their cameras on a termite mound for 30 days and filmed the winged stage of its life cycle. The film received an Academy Award nomination in 1978.
After the couple divorced in the 1980s, Joan moved back to Kenya and became an outspoken conservationist. She frequently railed against poaching and illegal fishing on Lake Naivasha, the Rift Valley’s only freshwater basin. Her 88-acre lakefront property also served as a refuge for orphaned animals, including waterbucks, dik diks, an aardvark, a hippo and an African porcupine.
Root was lying in bed inside her farmhouse when armed intruders broke the nearest window and fired an AK-47 assault rifle into the room. Two of the bullets struck her in the leg; one hit her in the hip. Root tried to staunch the bleeding with bed sheets, but died of massive blood loss. The assailants left the scene without taking any valuables. Kenyan police later arrested two men in connection with the slaying.
[Update – Feb. 2, 2006: Four men were charged with attempted robbery with violence in connection with the murder of British wildlife filmmaker Joan Root. The men deny any involvement in her death and police sources said there was not enough evidence to charge them with her slaying.]
[Update – May 23, 2007: Actress Julia Roberts has agreed to play Joan Root in a movie about her life, her efforts to preserve Africa’s threatened wildlife and her brutal death. The biopic will be produced by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title Films.]