July 06, 1981 12:00 PM

Alan Root, 44, is a walking testament to the hazards of life in the East African bush. The naturalist-filmmaker’s right index finger is missing, the result of an encounter with a puff adder. His left buttock bears the scar of a leopard’s bite, and his right calf marks the spot where an enraged hippopotamus bit out a chunk of flesh—”enough to make a reasonable hamburger”—with its nine-inch teeth. Root’s wife, Joan, also 44, has had some perilous experiences as well: On their very first safari she drove a thorn through her foot, and the same hippo that attacked her husband ripped her rubber diving mask and missed her face by millimeters.

But danger has never deterred the Roots from documenting Africa’s endangered species and disappearing vistas. This week they air their eighth TV special, Lights! Action! Africa!, a marvelously buoyant show that will only enhance their reputation as two of the most daring and ingenious filmmakers on any continent. Like the Roots’ past specials (including 1975’s The Great Migration: Year of the Wildebeest, a study of the animals’ mass movements across the African plains), it offers close-up footage of one startling natural phenomenon after another. But this time the Roots have concentrated on a particularly hardy species: themselves. The couple are shown filming a cheetah’s 70-mile-per-hour attack on a gazelle, hiding a camera under a tortoise shell to record a stampede of wildebeests, and shooting underwater scenes seconds before the hippo attacked them. Alan jokes the show ought to be called Roots II, but they prefer the British title, Two in the Bush.

That makes it sound idyllic, and it is. The Roots’ base is an 88-acre nature preserve on Lake Naivasha, 50 miles from Nairobi. There, in a lush garden, yellow-barked acacia trees are home to more than 200 kinds of wild birds, which swoop in for handouts of mealworms as the Roots breakfast on their veranda. Childless, the couple care for countless orphans, including an aardvark, an amiable hippo, a hyena and a rare black-and-white colobus monkey.

The couple’s work takes them away most of the year, and some of the younger pets accompany them as they crisscross East Africa by Land-Rover, Cessna (which either can pilot) and hot-air balloon (which, they discovered seven years ago, makes a superb platform for filming). Says Wilbur E. Garrett, editor of the National Geographic (which has published several articles by the Roots on such subjects as horn-bills and the Galápagos Islands), “It’s not like sending a film crew to Africa. Their films are an extension of their lives. Somehow, you think the animals can understand them.”

It was their love for wildlife that brought them together. Although they had attended the same Nairobi high school, their first meeting was in Tanzania in 1960. Joan Thorpe was there to help her father run a camera safari, and Alan was making a film. He offered her a lift into Ngorongoro Crater. They hardly spoke on the trip. “We still don’t talk much,” Alan admits, “but we pick up on the same things.”

The next year the couple married. (They are both nearsighted and Alan jokes, “She wore a monocle and so did I. Together we made quite a spectacle.”) As for a honeymoon, Joan says, “We went straight off on safari. So we’re either still on our honeymoon, or we never had one.” Almost immediately they began collaborating. Alan does all of the shooting and editing, which puts Joan in the driver’s—or pilot’s—seat. It was she who flew their balloon when they made the first-ever flight over 19, 340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro (for their 1976 special, Balloon Safari). After focusing on that highest point in Africa, the Roots landed in Tanzania and were mistakenly arrested as spies.

They have better luck with nonhumans. Joan organizes their trips and uses her vast knowledge of wildlife to contribute to the scripts. Though she looks fragile, her appearance is deceptive, which becomes apparent when she is, say, underwater with a 14-foot python. Alan has a reputation as a daredevil, though he now claims, “I’m too old for pranks.” Joan is never afraid to follow. “I have a lot of confidence in him and trust his judgment,” she says. “He can read the animals and anticipate what they’re likely to do.”

Joan modestly calls herself Alan’s assistant, and he says, “If she were a great career woman, she might not be interested in helping me with mine. I’m the guy who’s got the ideas, but she’s a great manager.” Observes Martin Bell, a fellow filmmaker, “The Roots are a team, and that’s what makes it work so well.”

Born in London, Alan knew little about Africa before he moved, at 9, to Kenya, where his father had become manager of a meat-packing plant. Indeed, young Root showed up in the tropical country with a toboggan. Soon he preferred safaris with Kamba tribesmen to school, and every report card, he recalls, said, “Could do better.” At 19, he invented the first humane trap for bongos, an elusive antelope; the device provided the world’s zoos with their breeding stock. And at 25, he organized an effort that saved 27,000 flamingos after they were hatched on a lake where mineral deposits encrusted their legs.

An 8-mm home movie on snakes and charging rhinos was his first photographic effort, the beginning of his “El Cheapo productions.” For a dozen years he earned money for his film work by taking tourists on photo safaris. His partner in that venture was the then struggling paleontologist Richard Leakey.

The daughter of a coffee farmer, Joan was born in Nairobi. At 16, she left for school in Switzerland, but her love of African wildlife brought her home.

Apart from the inherent danger in their work, the Roots’ biggest problem is frustration. “Sometimes,” Alan complains, “you go day after day and do not get anything on film. It’s like gambling—sometimes you have a bad run.” While waiting, they “read lots of Harold Robbins,” Alan reports, and if they’re in their Rover, listen to Neil Diamond cassettes. Patience pays. In 1976 they replaced part of a hollow tree—home to a family of hornbills—with a pane of glass. It was two years before the birds returned to nest, but the Roots were waiting, and they got a unique record of the big-billed birds’ home life. On another occasion they spent 30 nights watching a 15-foot termite mound on the off chance that it would “hatch.” When it did, they shot the climactic sequence of Mysterious Castles of Clay, which won an Academy Award nomination.

The Roots may be the last of their breed. The rapid encroachment of civilization on the African wilderness means that “it will be much more difficult for the next generation to live a life like this,” Alan says. That’s one reason he and Joan plan to spend much of the next decade, the “most productive years of our lives,” back in Tanzania, where it all began for them. On the Serengeti Plain they will film the teeming wildlife that may soon disappear. “Imagine,” says Alan, “how great it would be to have a film record of the time when 40 million bison migrated across America’s prairies. There is still time in Africa to do it.”

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