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Hollywood Actress Preserves African Legacy of Late Film Star

Hollywood actress Stefanie Powers is keeping alive the African legacy of the late film star William Holden, who established a well known game ranch and sanctuary in Kenya. Powers is president of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, and she spoke with VOA's Mike O'Sullivan about her work on behalf of animal conservation in East Africa.

On the slopes of Mt. Kenya, thousands of schoolchildren arrive throughout the year at the William Holden Wildlife Education Center, where they learn about the animal and plant life of the region.

The center, which is adjacent to the Mt. Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, carries on the legacy of Hollywood actor William Holden. He fell in love with East Africa after going on safari there in the 1950s.

In 1959, he became co-owner of a famous resort, renaming it the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, and in the 1960s he and his partners set up the Mt. Kenya Game Ranch. Within a few years, it would house a sanctuary for orphaned animals.

After Holden's death in 1981, his partners and actress Stefanie Powers co-founded the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, which operates the educational center. She says it re-introduces African students to nature away from Kenya's bustling towns and cities.

"We do not allow boom boxes. We do not allow portable telephones. That all is left at the door," she says. "This is a natural experience. It is for students to come and understand nature, and to do so, you cannot have headphones on."

There are 37 species of wildlife on the preserve adjacent to the center, and the foundation offers programs on animal conservation and environmental protection. Powers says it also reaches out to youngsters through the schools.

"We combine our curricula, which is specifically adjusted to their level of education and understanding, as well as onsite programs, which we install, such as lessons on composting, what to do with biodegradable waste, how to create agro-forestry, where trees and crops can be grown harmoniously in a companion planting method where nitrogen-producing plants can actually enhance the soil." she said.

Powers divides her time between Hollywood and Kenya, and says her globe-trotting activism comes naturally. When she was a child, her family collected exotic birds and her stepfather bred racehorses. As a young woman, she owned dogs and acquired her own exotic animal, a Malaysian Sun Bear.

She recalls breaking the news to her boyfriend, who later became her husband.

"It was really not my most subtle moment," she says. "The little bear was in the kitchen playing with my Yorkshire Terrier. My boyfriend came home and I poured him a very stiff drink, and I said, 'You like bears, do not you?' I very subtly broke the ice."

Her fascination with animals outlasted her marriage. She was divorced in the early 1970s and found a new love in her life, one of Hollywood's top stars, William Holden. He had appeared in nearly 80 movies, including the classic war films Bridge on the River Kwai and Stalag 17, for which he won an Oscar. At this point in his life, he spent much of his time in Kenya.

Powers says that even before she met him, she loved to travel.

"I consumed every bit of free time I had by going off to some place, and I spent a lot of time in Central and South America, and Mexico," she says. "And I had traveled extensively through North Africa. But I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa, and certainly not to East Africa, which is where the game was. So Bill introduced me to his part of Africa, as he used to call it. And I was already in love with the man, so it was very easy to be in love with where he hung his hat."

Powers has appeared in films and on television since she was a teenager in the 1950s. She is best known for the popular series Hart to Hart, in which she costarred with Robert Wagner, playing husband and wife detectives, from 1979 to 1984.

But she has always spent time at her second home in Kenya, and has even been adopted by the local Kikuyu people. She says Africa is her passion, as it was for a British adventurer she once portrayed in a television movie.

"Oh, gosh, I guess I was bitten by the bug," she says. "And it is beyond me, now. I am helpless. It is part of my cells. You know, I think it was Beryl Markham who wrote, 'I will always remember Africa, but will Africa remember me?' I do not think Africa will remember me, but I will always remember Africa."

She says that whether working with preservation groups in Hollywood or with youngsters at Mt. Kenya, she is helping endangered species in a part of the world she loves.