Death in Happy Valley- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Death in Happy Valley

A son of the colonial aristocracy goes on trial for killing a poacher in Kenya, where an exploding human population is heightening tensions and stretching resources to the breaking point

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Since the mid-1980s, Naivasha has become the center of Kenya's flower export industry, attracting European companies with its low wages, rich volcanic soil and water from the lake. Greenhouses for roses and chrysanthemums now crowd the shoreline in tight formation. From a distance, it can seem as if Mount Longonot, a defunct volcano, has spilled down a seamless lava flow of plastic sheeting. Women in bright green work coats walk to and from flower farms along the road. They've come from all over Kenya, with thousands of others still unemployed, for jobs that pay $72 a month.

According to her friends, Joan Root didn't so much resist this change as attempt to moderate its worst excesses. She and filmmaker Alan Root had bought an 88-acre farm beside the lake in 1963, when they were a young married couple and Naivasha was still a backwater. They used it as a retreat when they weren't off in the bush filming wildlife.

Alan and Joan Root had made their name as one of the most successful natural history filmmaking teams in the business. He dreamed up stories for the BBC or National Geographic, and she organized the details to make them happen in the field. After the marriage ended in the 1980s, the farm became a sanctuary both for Joan and for the wildlife that were her great passion. Hippos still snarfle in the dense stand of papyrus along the shoreline there. Dik-diks, a type of mousy little antelope, graze on the front lawn. A pair of crowned cranes pester staffers for food.

At the farm, Root gradually took up a new life as a conservationist. The lake itself was shrinking because of the demand from the flower farms and their workers. Small farmers in the surrounding hills were also stripping away the forests and diverting tributaries for irrigation. Lake Naivasha, once so clear you could see to the bottom, had turned murky with agricultural runoff and overflowing pit latrines.

Root focused her efforts on poachers who threatened to empty the lake of fish with their nets. They also cut down the dense lakeshore papyrus, to avoid being ambushed by hippos and buffalo hiding there. Root tried to explain that the water around the papyrus served as the nursery for next year's fish. She advocated things like gill nets with a bigger mesh, so smaller fish could get through and live to breed. Root enlisted the poachers themselves to patrol the lake as a private anti-poaching task force. Friends told her it was foolish to become so personally identified with the task force. Her efforts caused the entire fishery to shut down for a year of recovery. "It was very easy to turn around and say, 'Because of that bloody woman, we've lost our livelihood,'" said Adrian Luckhurst, a friend and business partner. Getting in the way of that livelihood could be dangerous.

Root's house, now closed up, is a modest one-story structure in a stand of tall, graceful yellow-fever acacia trees. It has a rusting tin roof, and the skull of a hippo gathers dust in a corner of the porch. An askari, or watchman, named Khalif Abdile patrolled the property the day I visited. He was recovering from a hippo attack and bent his slender frame into a frail stick that served as a cane.

Abdile was the askari on duty the night in January 2006 when Joan Root was shot to death. He pointed out the fork of a fallen tree where he'd been lying, his head on one trunk and his feet on the other, when two intruders first appeared around a stand of bushes a few feet away. One carried a panga, the other an AK-47. They wore hoods to hide their faces. Abdile pressed a button, setting off a noisy alarm atop the house and sending a telephone alert to a private security force. The intruders briefly debated whether to find and kill the askari, but then proceeded instead to the house. "Let's do the work," Abdile heard one say.

Abdile retraced their footsteps for me from window to window around the house. At the back of the house, they opened a gate to a tortoise compound and walked up to Root's bedroom. The AK-47 blew open the lock on an outside door leading to the bathroom. But a steel security door just inside stopped them. Then, said Abdile, they broke open a bedroom window and started talking to Root: "Open the door and we won't kill you. We just need the money." They moved to another window, where Root was now on the phone calling for help. The gunman sprayed the room with bullets, hitting Root and knocking her to the floor. Then the two of them turned to leave, thinking they had killed her.

But Root had only suffered a wound to the thigh, and now, said Abdile, she reached for a flashlight, perhaps to find her mobile phone or her eyeglasses. ("That was Joan," an American friend said later. "She always had a flashlight nearby.") One of the attackers saw the light come on and said, "She's still alive." They turned back and the gunman fired again through a window as Root dragged herself around the bed toward the bathroom, where the high windows and the steel door promised refuge. Hit by more bullets, she died, at age 69, on the bathroom floor.

Police quickly traced the assailants to a slum called Karagita, a few miles up the road. Among those the police arrested was a former poacher who had become Root's right-hand man on the anti-poaching task force.

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About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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