William Holden Wildlife Foundation
 
 

In the mid 1950’s William Holden
went to Africa on a hunting safari
with two friends, an American oil man Ray Ryan
and a Swiss banker Carl Hirschmann.
It was a time well before the independence
of sub-Saharan Africa,
well before mass tourism and
well before the word “conservation”
was in popular use. It was a time when
East Africa was a destination for
intrepid travelers, soldiers of fortune,
settlers and hunters.

Safari is a KiSwahili word meaning trip. Safaris were mostly associated with hunting trips. A “proper” safari would take a considerable amount of time and an equally considerable amount of cash and included going after the "Big 5", elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo. Bill and his friends were prepared to spend many weeks in Kenya despite the fact that there was unrest in the country.

The Mau Mau freedom fighters of the Kikuyu tribe were launching their war of independence. The Mau Mau hid in the mountain forests of the Abadares and Mt. Kenya located in the northern part of the country. This was also the destination of Bill's safari. Because of the way the game department organized the hunting areas with numbered "blocks", hunters were only allowed to get certain numbers and species of trophy in designated blocks, so every so often Bill's elaborate safari camp had to be disassembled and moved to a new hunting block miles away. This process of disassembling and reassembling took days so the clients - in this case our three "intrepid boys" - went off to "repair" themselves at an upcountry inn called the Mawingo Hotel. Because of the Mau Mau few if any locals were traveling around the countryside, especially not going near the area surrounding Mt. Kenya where the Kikuyu gangs were camped.

The Mawingo Hotel was located overlooking Mt. Kenya, very near the forest. There was only one other guest staying at the hotel, the writer Robert Ruark, who was working on his third best seller. On every occasion the three friends would return to the Mawingo, they would have drinks overlooking Mt. Kenya and marvel at the beauty of the hotel and the site.

It was well known that the hotel was up for sale at a good price, so after rounds of drinks and fantasies about what could be done with the Mawingo, Robert Ruark declared "put up or shut up". Checkbooks were produced and in one night they became owners of a hotel. The Mawingo was transformed into the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, which became the jewel in the crown of destinations in East Africa, and the clients were a who's who of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The club was surrounded by a farm owned by a Major Nicholsen. Bill became consumed by the idea that it was more important to save animals than to hunt them. The Nicholsen's nearly 2000 acres was an ideal place to house and protect small herds of a variety of game that would be clearly affected by the impending population explosion. When the farm became available Bill bought it along with two minority partners, Don Hunt and Julien McKeand, and a door opened for Bill that would change the course of his life.

Together they created a game ranch with captive breeding programs of 37 East African species and an animal orphanage which raised generations of rescued orphans, sometimes bringing them back to health from the brink of death. One of the rarest species on the game ranch is the East African bongo (a shy medium sized forest dwelling antelope). The partners made the bongo the symbol of the game ranch and its logo.

William Holden Wildlife Foundation
It is important to remember that conservation, preservation and even the concept of “ecology” were ideas that would only become popular vernacular many years after the creation of the Mount Kenya Game Ranch. Green movements in the US and the UK brought wildlife conservation awareness to the world through tee shirts bearing the face of a baby seal that came onto our streets and into our lives.

Throughout his life, William Holden continued his wholehearted support of the game ranch and often referred to it as the greatest work of his life, over and above all of his films.


Bill with Sambura trackers and Don Hunt, Partner of the Mt. Kenya Game Ranch

William Holden’s untimely death in 1981 brought his life to an end but not his work. In 1973 William Holden brought another person into his life and into his dream, Stefanie Powers, who was swept up by Bill’s contagious enthusiasm for Africa. After William Holden passed away, Stefanie, together with the Hunts, formed the William Holden Wildlife Foundation to carry out his unfinished work and carry on with his dream. The foundation received its IRS status as a Public Charity in October 1982 and the first group camped on the site of the education center in January 1983, and officially opened its doors on June 4, 1983.

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