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Virginia McKenna OBE Inspiration

Interview: Virginia McKenna OBE, Founder of Born Free Foundation

The Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries at Shamwari Private Game Reserve provide a safe haven for rescued lions and leopards. Alfred& was extremely privileged to speak to Virginia McKenna OBE, creator of the Born Free Foundation (the Founder Patron is Joanna Lumley OBE), to learn about the crucial work the charity carries out to protect wildlife worldwide and how the sanctuaries at Shamwari started.

Virginia’s passion for wildlife began when she and her husband, Bill Travers MBE, were cast as the lead stars in the movie, Born Free. The film tells the story of how wildlife conservationist and game warden, George Adamson and his wife, Joy, a real-life couple, rescued an orphaned lion cub which they named Elsa and released back into the wild. During filming, Virginia and Bill formed a bond with the circus-trained cubs that they worked with. Little did they know, these lions were to change their lives. When they discovered after filming that the lions would be sent to zoos around the world, Bill started a production company making wildlife documentaries. Collaborating again with James Hill, the director of Born Free, the team produced, The Lions Are Free, following the journey of the three lions featured in Born Free, that were fortunate to have been released back into the wild.

On a subsequent filming trip to Kenya, Bill and Virginia worked with Pole Pole, a young female elephant that after filming, was destined for London Zoo. Despite their efforts to keep her in Kenya, she was still relocated. In 1982 They visited her at the zoo and while delighted that she recognised them by reaching out her trunk, they were upset to see how distressed she looked in her enclosure. Bill and Virginia did all that they could to secure Pole Pole a better quality of life but sadly at the young age of 16 she collapsed and died. It was Pole Pole’s story that led them to create Zoo Check in 1984, a charity primarily focused on the welfare of captive animals. This later became the Born Free Foundation.

The first Born Free Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari game reserve was created after Virginia was informed of two lions and a leopard caged on a roof of a restaurant in Tenerife. She recalls this emotional moment:

“We flew out to see them and were horrified to see their conditions. Cramped in a tiny, padlocked cage, they didn’t have clean water to drink. Their conditions were horrific. I knew instantly I needed to rescue them but where would they go?”

While Virginia tried to figure out a permanent solution, the animals were temporarily homed in a small sanctuary in Kent.

“I met Adrian Gardiner of Shamwari and told him of my despair, that the lions and leopard needed more space, a place where they could roam free,”  she explains.

Adrian agreed to accommodate them at his private game reserve located in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

“I recall the moment when they arrived at Shamwari in 1997,” Virginia continues. I was there when the crate opened and the male, Raffi, shot out. He then returned to encourage his female companion, Anthea, to join him.”

Later joined by the leopard, Rikki, the three rescued big cats enjoyed the last years of their life free and uncaged. This became the start of the big cat arrivals at Shamwari. King was another rescued lion previously kept in a Paris apartment, caged and abused.  He’s lived at Shamwari since 2018 and, after such a traumatic start in life, he is enjoying life in a natural environment.

Shamwari now houses two big cat sanctuaries. Located in the south of the reserve, The Julie Ward Centre opened in memory of a British photographer who was murdered in Kenya. In 2006, The Jean Byrd Education Centre and Sanctuary opened in the north of the reserve to educate visiting school groups as well as providing enclosures for other rescued big cats.  Virginia is delighted to tell us that after delays due to Covid, they have finally obtained permits to welcome four circus-rescued lions to their new home.

During their stay, guests of Shamwari can visit The Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries and learn about the rescued cats. Virginia stresses though that luck plays a large part and you may not even see any of the cats as after all, they are now free and can choose whether they want to be seen. Virginia’s passion for wildlife is infectious.

“One thing I believe is that it should never be about a group or a crowd. Every person and every animal are individuals, they all react in different ways and they all need to be treated as individuals. Sadly, humans are not always humane.”

Virginia finds hope in the younger generation who seem to be more aware about nature and how essential it is to protect wildlife and their habitats. As we close our interview, she remains optimistic with a resilient belief that there are so many good people in the world who share her passion for wildlife conservation.

“It’s what’s in the heart that matters” she concludes.


For more information on the vital work done by The Born Free Foundation visit

International Animal Welfare Charity | Born Free

To visit the Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries at Shamwari Private Game Reserve please call 0808 239 0555, contact one of our experts or arrange a phone or video appointment. 

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