January 20, 2006 by

Joan Root


Categories: Artists

Joan Thorpe Root, a British wildlife filmmaker and African conservationist, was murdered on Jan. 12. She was 69.

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.]

39 Responses to Joan Root

  1. Tami

    I didn’t know Joan, but I have an online friend who knew her, and it is through him that I found out about her death. From there, I went online to see if I could find info on who she was and what she was about in respect to the wildlife film making and conservation. What a woman !! I wish I HAD known her !!! The write up about her life and death speaks of a woman who loved her native Kenya… the wildlife, the culture, the history, the story. Ever since I was old enough to know about it, I’ve dreamed of Africa. Joan, rest in peace… YOU are what I dream Africa truly is !!!

  2. Diana

    Joan Root was one of the finest examples of someone who cares deeply about Africa, Kenya in particular and wildlife. I have had the good fortune to visit Africa numerous times and the research and films she contributed to made a huge difference in the understanding safari members had. She will be missed by those of us who treasure and love Africa and wildlife but more importantly she will be missed by those animals she worked so hard to save.



  4. Lynda Turner

    I read a recent article about Joan and found myself selfishly wishing I were her. Oh to have a love of the animals like she did and the chance to express it upon so many dear creatures just makes me cry with a loss that they have with her taken away from them. I hope her generous heart is found in others to help them.

  5. Louise Knight

    I met Joan and Alan Root while I worked at Kilaguni Lodge in 1967-1970. They where filming at Mzima Springs. Joan was a lovely person, but very shy. She often came to the lodge.I would visit them at there camp and walked Tiger her Caracal with her. Later when I worked at Mnarani they came for a coffee and I went with them to Kilifi to catch some fruitbats for a film. Joan but also Alan have made my stay in Africa very special. Joan deserves more recognition for her part in the films that Alan made. I will never forget her.

  6. Fred

    I first met Joan in Tanzania in the early 70’s, and again in Nairobi in the early 90’s, when I also met Alan. I was impressed with her both as a person and as a filmmaker, and am grieved by this senseless killing. She was one of Kenya’s assets. Fred

  7. Poppy

    I’m researching Joan and Allen’s work and am having a hard time getting a hold of any. Where can I rent/ buy their movies…especially interested in Two in the Bush? Any info at all is appreciated.

  8. Mike_W

    I never had the chance to meet Joan or her husband Allen, who has my sincere condolences. Someone like like Joan who withstands the forces of everyday life to follow the love of animals and nature deserves our respect and admiration. I can only pray there will be another selfless person to take up the cause in such a wildlife abundant region.
    Gods Speed Joan…

  9. Jocelyn Walker

    Joan Root was my cousin. Her death was a deep & tragic loss to all her family, all over the world. She was an incredible woman. Softly spoken but someone with immense spirit! She was passionate about Wildlife from a small girl, who collected all means of nature & affectionately called ‘dudu (swahili for insect) girl’ by members of the family. She was legendary. Our only hope is that her killers are brought to justice!

  10. Peter Gitonga

    I didn’t know Joan personally, but I watched most of the wildlife films they made countless times and showed them to thousands of school children who visited African Fund for Endangered Wildlife’s Giraffe Center. Im sure all those kids will miss her inspiration, just like I do.

  11. Micheni, Peter

    Her films were great especialy “Two in the bush”. Anyone with an idea where I could get the following Joan/Alan Root Wildlife Films:
    1. The year of the Wildebeeste
    2. Castles of Clay
    3. A season in the sun
    4. Two in the bush.
    Please email
    Micheni P. ,micheni2001@yahoo.com

  12. Melissa MacKenzie

    I read about Joan Root in Vanity Fair and I am in awe and admiration for the woman who made it her life to preserve the beauty and the ecosystem in Africa. I pray that the true murderers of this lady will be bought to justice. I know that this isn’t over by any mean and for those who know her and admire her I think it’s time for the truth to come out and find out what really happened.
    Joan Root was an incredible lady!

  13. Ruth Lehmann

    I was so sorry and sad at the news of Joan’s brutal murder in January of 06. I read about it in the New York Times. I knew some of Alan in the late 70’s and the 80’s when he met and married his second wife, Jenny (Janet) Hammond. I had lost touch with them when letters came back unopened. They were a great couple. We all spoke highly of Joan and all her great qualities. Jenny had a special place in Alan’s life and I often wondered what happened. If anyone out there has an e-mail address, I can be reached at ruthlehmann@bellsouth.net. Jenny and I were potters together. I live in Gainesville, Florida USA. Thanks.

  14. Mary Stanley-Shepherd (nee Fryer)

    As I have only just found this website I am late posting this message but I was so shocked when I heard of Joan’s callous murder last year. I knew Joan in 1956 when she worked for Shell Company Nairobi and she often visited us at Karen, in fact I am sure it was us that first introduced her to Alan who lived just down the road from us. Alan lived with his long suffering mother and sister, and the most amazing collection of animals and snakes. We took all our visitors to his house because it was such a fascinating place. I have such happy memories and photos of those days. Rest in Peace Joan you will never be forgotten.

  15. Rick Frye

    I didn’t know Joan and only JUST came to know of her dreadful death. But I was acquainted with some of the films she produced – possible only at the hands of a most amazing master. As others have mentioned, I too, am seeking copies of her films – most notably “Castles of Clay” and would VERY MUCH appreciate any assistance in locating a place where I might purchase or rent a copy. I’m also very much in love with African wildlife.
    I’m Rick Frye at: rickfrye@wolfenet.com

  16. L.Gallant

    Four accused in murder of filmmaker Joan Root acquitted
    11/08/2007 10:59:15 AM
    A judge in Kenya has acquitted four men accused of killing British wildlife filmmaker Joan Root, ruling that the investigation into her death was “shoddy.”
    CBC Arts
    The 69-year-old documentarian and naturalist was shot in her bed January 2006 by two intruders who broke into her house in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The attackers shattered Root’s bedroom window and shot her at point blank range with AK-47s, according to police.
    Judge Nicholas Njagi ordered the four accused released on Friday after more than a year in custody. Their charges included robbery with violence leading to death.
    “I acquit the accused,” Njagi said. “The investigation was shoddy … None of the witnesses positively identified the accused as being on the scene during the incident.”
    David Chege, one of the accused, said: “We have suffered in remand for a sin committed by others.” He was charged along with Joseph Ndung’u, Philip Mutuku and Allan Githenji.
    Police have not been able to establish a motive for the killing.
    Filmmaker interacted with wildlife
    Root was the daughter of Edmund Thorpe, a British coffee farmer and photo safari guide who moved to Kenya in 1929.
    She became a highly regarded conservationist and made a series of groundbreaking films from the 1960s to the 1980s about African wildlife with her husband Alan, including Balloon Safari, Mysterious Castle of Clay, Year of the Wildebeest and Two in the Bush.
    The couple’s films were often made for National Geographic. The Roots divorced in 1981 but Joan opted to stay on their compound, 90 kilometres west of Nairobi.
    She was also known for her efforts to preserve Lake Naivasha, the Rift Valley’s only freshwater lake. A battle has emerged between foreign investors and the local population over access to resources. Root is reported to have upset both locals and large companies growing flowers nearby over her efforts to preserve fish stocks and to conserve the lake water.
    Three other Europeans have been killed in violent robberies in the Rift Valley since September 2004.
    Working Title Films of England announced in May that it was making a biopic of Root, with actor Julia Roberts set to play the title role and be co-producer. Filming is set to begin next year.
    ((For the life and work of this incrediable human she deserves justice. What a sad day in the world for us all. My prayers go out to the family and for the rest of humanity who not fully understood what a light she was. I pray there will one day be justice for Joan)


    I met Joan ROOT in Nairobi,it was in 1995,she was a very nice woman.I was so upset when I red on her blog that she has been killed.I really wish that the killers will pay for their horrible action.I pray for her and for her family.I lived in Massai Mara ,with my friend James HILL.

  18. Angela Wanjiru

    to Joan and Family: I am so sorry for what happened. I am a Kenyan(kikuyu) and love all the documentaries and films that Joan had done. It is easy to see why people fall in love with Kenya. It is sad to see that corruption sees no justice and knows no color barriers. One day Joan, we shall all meet and sit and be at peace. No more tribal tensions, no more color barriers but one free soul. Rest in peace Joan. We all needed you but God needed you more.

  19. irene davies

    I met both alan and Joan when I worked for African Tours and Hotels in Nairobi. I took animals in a sack in the back of my car, and delivered them to the pair.I was at kilaguni lodge in Tsavo, we enjoyed a few jars of ale, Alan was a great joker, he even let a non-posionious snake into a 21st. birthday party.He and his wife were real profesionals, filming the wildlife of Kenya, those of us whom were lucky to meet them, were truly blessed.

  20. Janet Mahoney

    I looked up Joan Root because of an interview on NPR radio with the author or a book about her life. The name of the book is “Wildflower”.

  21. Cynthia

    At a very early age I fell in love with African wildlife through Joy Adamson/Born Free, then again through Dian Fossey’s Gorillas, and now I am learning of another remarkable soul named Joan Root. I just finished reading the book Wildflower and am deeply impressed and disturbed at the same time. All of these women, now gone through violent and senseless tragedies, are who I aspire to live like…..shame on those who squelch such compassion and love. The spirit and light of such souls cannot be murdered or erased, they will live on. At peace now you are, thank you.

  22. wendy smith

    As a child I grew up watching Joan and Alan’s documentries,with facination. Late 2005 I had the good fortune to have dinner with Joan in Kenya. Still a shy lady, but still very passionate about the plight of Africa. She achieved so much in her life, what a great loss to the land, people and her beloved animals.

  23. Anita Nicole

    I have just finished reading Wildflower, the book on the life of Joan Root. What a remarkable woman! Joan is an inspiration to all women whom aspire to do and be more in life. She will be sorely missed by all the animals and people that loved her, no doubt.

  24. nancy campbell

    10/19/09: I have just discovered the biography of Joan Root by Mark Seal(2009) “Wildflower”. It is a most compelling read. I too would like to know how I can access some of the documentaries especially after reading of their fantastic exploits. I look forward to the movie of her life.
    Nancy B, Campbell, Bedford, Mass.

  25. Sally Hill

    I was at boarding school with Joan in Nairobi and have followed her career with great interest.
    She was very good at sport especially running and played left wing in the first eleven hockey team.
    She was also the fastest runner in the school.
    I would dearly love to get hold of her “Two in the Bush” but living in Australia I have no idea how to do this. Please help !
    Email mchana36@hotmail.com

  26. Cole Rodger

    I just read the book wildflower and what an amazing woman. I’m so glad this book was written, so those of us that never knew about her do now. What a tragic ending of a beautiful woman.
    Where I could get the following Joan/Alan Root Wildlife Films:
    1. The year of the Wildebeeste
    2. Castles of Clay
    3. A season in the sun
    4. Two in the bush.
    I want to learn more about her and see her work.
    Thank you,
    Cole Rodger
    Please email to cole@coleimage.com

  27. Cory Marder

    I have just come across this website. I am reading Wildflower and learning about Joan’s life. I am a wildlife conservationist ‘follower’ and have been to Kenya many times. I, too, would like information to see their films. I have never seen any. She was a very fine person and her head and heart were in the right place for wildlife and our planet.

  28. Raul Curado

    There is a passage in Mark Seal’s Wildflower which states:””Africa is the continent of legends”” and Mark Seal concludes: “With her death,Joan Root becomes one more of them, a legendary life forever caught between the continent’s great extremes of beauty and brutality.”

  29. Ann

    I am just now reading ‘Wildflower’ by Mark Seal, a biography of Joan Root. She clearly was a lovely person and she also lived large because of her husband. But his falandering must have caused her enormous emotional pain. Poor dear lady. We need more of her kind of woman and less of his kind of man. Ann

  30. sylvia blyth

    What a marvelous woman Joan Root was,I have just finished reading WILDFLOWER by Mark Seal and could not put it down. I have been to Africa myself several times and on my last trip April 2010 I did the lake Naivasha boat trip to see the hippoes and fish eagles etc.I asked the young man who took us out if we could see Joans house from the lake but to my dissapointment he said we did not go that part of the lake.What a great talented couple they made ,he left Joan but he never stopped loving her.


    I met Joan and Alan Root during the last of the seventies. Alan’s mother ran the charity shop in Nairobi and Joan would come by from time to time. She was a very shy lady but had a gentle manner about her. Alan’s mother would regale tales of their exploits. and when we were at their house .Alan would buzz to let his mother know he was back from a trip. He flew his own plane. I believe they made a film not mentioned in the list it was “Nothing going on ” Perhaps my memory has not served me well on the title.So very sorry to hear of the senseless slaying of one who had done so much for Kenya. Mary Biscardi Nee Arnold

  32. Joe

    Yah..Joans Death was the suddest news in naivasha, she was a greatest Conservationist in kenya, her contribution towards saving lake Naivasha will alway be Remembered.
    You can watch her Life Story film “The murder on the Lake” directed by Henry Singer

  33. Joan Dutchak

    Read the book Wildflower, I thought Joan Root was a remarkable woman.It really upset me that she loved and was so devoted to Allen and that he was so easily taken from her. I was hoping before the end that he would come back to her but never did. How sad is that! I would really love to see some of the films they worked on. Can I get them at the Library or video on line? You are definately in heaven Joan, surrounded by all the beautiful animals you cared for and loved.

  34. Joanne Tickle

    Such a great loss to humanity and to wildlife. I did not know Joan but I am an amateur film maker and animal enthusiast and lover.
    I raised wild animals as a child when they were found abandoned or wounded. I live on a farm in Canada. I am wondering what became of Joan’s house on the lake and all of the animals that she so lovingly cared for. Does anyone know? I saw the documentary on Joan’s life and brutal death and at the end…the house sat empty.
    It’s so very sad. I worry about the animals now.
    posted by Joanne Tickle

  35. Norma Moya de Wall

    I have just read “Wildflower”, what a fantastic account of the life of Joan Root. So many murders so few murderers brought to justice.

  36. Jocelyn Walker

    The previous poster Joanne asked if anyone knew what became of Joan’s property! She left it to the ‘Peoples of Kenya’ that may even include her slayers unfortunately. More importantly though, perhaps Kenyan authorities could make a real tribute to her life & what she did for conserving it’s wildlife etc, would be to make it a Commemorative Sanctuary for posterity! Meaning that no private person can build on it or own it….no flower growers..farmers etc! Only the Wild Animals could make it their own!

  37. La Vollmers

    Well,I’m reading the book by Mark Seal (german title: ‘ich gab mein herz für afrika’ = I gave my heart for africa’) and before I didn’t know Joan. While reading I learned to love her more and more. She impressed me so much, and now I’m worried about the animals and whole Africa.
    I think the main part of the people is shadow, and Joans heart was full of light…

  38. Ram

    I remember watching a documentary where they showed how Joan and Alan made their films. I especially remember the part where Joan is spat on by a spitting cobra. I am an amateur wildlife filmmaker and people like Joan inspire me to no end. I am sorry for her loss and I hope her death does’nt affect the wildlife too much. I mean that in the best possible way.
    I would hope to watch some of her and Alan’s films which I have been trying to get hold of for a long time. If anybody knows where I can find them, you’re help will be much appreciated. Thank you.
    My email is: ram.a08@gmx.com

  39. Barbara

    Joan Root was an amazing woman. Probably too soft and accepting of her husband’s wild ways which included philandering. It seems Jennie Hammond was just too colourful but at the same time, devious, for someone as nice as Joan. It would have been entirely against her character, but Joan should have kicked him to the kerb long before she did. She gave up her life, her youth her dreams for Alan and he repaid her by having affairs. He is the weak one in this story. Joan suffered the fate of Africa where greed kills everything. Such good people who are just trying to protect the beauty and uniqueness of the African bush are cut down by ruthless, brutal greed(Diane Fossey, the Adamsons, Joan Root)

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