This film is held by the BFI (ID: 51282).


Story of the efforts of a Game Warden in East Africa to preserve wild animals in his territory.



Where No Vultures Fly is a dramatisation of Mervyn Cowie’s struggle to set up a Kenyan National Park. Just like Robert Mason in Watt’s film, Cowie wrote anonymously to a newspaper to demand the use of aeroplanes, explosives and chemical weapons against Kenya’s wild animals. Cowie purposely engineered a scandal to oil the wheels of change.

Watt’s film brought Cowie international recognition. ‘I enjoyed seeing my friends Gertie, the long-haired rhino of Amboseli, and the big lions of the Nairobi National Park known as The Spivs, moving across the screen of a London Theatre’, Cowie recalled, ‘I could imagine that the elephants of Tsavo were saying, Tell all those people in England to stop us being murdered by poachers.’ (Cowie, 1961, 171) Indeed, the film’s popularityexplains why Queen Elizabeth II was staying at the park on the night of her ascension.

Having established the idea that material progress and the protection of wildlife were not mutually exclusive, Cowie later helped establish a string of national parks across East Africa (including the Serengeti National Park) eventually becoming a Senior Consultant to the World Wildlife Fund.

However, by positing Cowie as an iconoclastic hero Where No Vultures Fly implicitly cast aspersions on the Colonial government. White settlers in Kenya complained that the film exaggerated Cowie’s influence. They also accused the filmmakers of mistreating animals (a complaint strenuously denied by Cowie). Cowie’s subsequent biography, Fly, Vulture, acknowledged that the lead character in Watt’s film is a composite of several people but maintained that the greatest resistance to his proposals had come from greedy white settlers. Like Mason in the film, Cowie identified himself first and foremost as an ‘African’. Here he drew a contrast between the descendants of white settlers who had immersed themselves in their habitat and those who were content to simply profit from it.

Where No Vultures Fly not only aimed its criticism at the indifference of white settlers, it also romanticised black Africans. This idealism was to be quickly dated by events. In 1952 the Mau Mau uprising began and the task of stopping the ivory trade and clearing poachers from Cowie’s park fell heavily down the list of national priorities. Indeed, the Colonial Government turned a section of Tsavo National Park into a prison camp. Thus while Watt’s film had the Akamba manipulated by a bitter and frightened British colonialist, in actuality they joined the Kikuyu fighting very much on their own volition.



Where No Vultures Fly is constructed out of an unusual array of genres and traditions. One of the most evident influences on the film is the formal debt to the British Documentary Movement. As well as reflecting Harry Watt’s apprenticeship at the GPO Film Unit, the stylistic borrowings have significant aesthetic consequences. For example, the fictional story is orientated by a ‘voice of God’ narration that details the path of Kenyan ‘development’, while the film’s credits thank the Africans of ‘Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda’ in the same manner that Night Mail thanks the workers of the travelling post office.

Most significantly, the film strives to fix an overt moral to Mason’s story. Thus when Mason confronts Mannering, the ivory traders’ ringleader, well-rounded characters become little more than mouthpieces. ‘Africa is finished’, Mannering argues, ‘don’t waste your time defending Africa, it won’t thank you. Your black brother would cut your throat for a tuppence.’ ‘You’re out of date, man,’ Mason responds, ‘this is a new Africa and there’s no place for you.’ Thus what for the most part is a straightforward adventure story becomes explicitly aligned with a rhetoric of pan-imperial partnership that was first articulated during the inter-war period (by Conservative politicians such as Leo Amery as well as left-wing writers such as George Orwell) but did not become received wisdom until the close of the Second World War. Indeed, Basil Wright would praise another of Watt’s Commonwealth westerns (The Overlanders) as the ‘fruition’ of the Empire Marketing Board’s work.

Accordingly, there is a correlation between Where No Vultures Fly’s portrayal of black Africans and the Documentary Movement’s veneration of the British working class. Although they are rarely afforded the opportunity of speaking, Where No Vultures Fly celebrates the heroic dignity of Black Africans and challenges received perceptions of them. Yet the film also both revels in stereotypes and hints that it wants to humorously transcend them. After the camera pans over a long unbroken sequence of Akamba tribal dancing, for instance, the exquisitely dressed Akamba leader serves Mason tea. ‘There was no need to put on a show’, quips Mason.

Watt draws much from the Western genre. At the most basic level, Where No Vultures Fly is a film about an attempt to build a utopian frontier community. Representatives of established ‘civilisation’ are shown to be hypocritical, while outcasts and indigenous peoples are shown to possess uncommon wisdom. The ‘new’ Commonwealth is idealised over the ‘old’ Empire.

The mix of genres works best when the film manages to fuse its dramatic and expositional modes. One of the film’s richest tensions is between the demands of the genre for certain ‘types’ of character and the documentary urge to offer searching contemporary explanations. Thus the Masai are given a dry factual introduction but play a narrative role similar to that of native Indians in Westerns. Similarly, striking if unsubtle scenes where foreign tourists train telescopic sights on defenceless animals, or where corrupt African chiefs profit at the expense of their tribes, emphasise that the vultures of the title are as much metaphorical as literal. Here the film manages to compellingly (and imaginatively) dramatise something of Kenya’s social, cultural and economic situation.

Watt’s film is entertaining but not very circumspect in its assessment of the rapid post- war changes in East Africa that provide the backdrop to Cowie’s crusade. It does not attempt to dramatise the political and administrative friction between the various organs of British colonial government, white settlers and native Africans, nor account for the growing American and Soviet influence in the region. In Where No Vultures Fly the ‘baddies’ are white, upper class and speak with received pronunciation, they rail against ‘regulation’ and the curbing of their freedoms in a way that appears designed to play to the prejudices of British cinemagoers. At the film’s worst, genre stereotypes play out a predetermined drama against an inert African background.

Overall the unusual mix of influences also contributes to a sense of narrative uncertainty. There’s a self-consciousness that is determined not to reprise the gung ho imperialism of Korda’s inter-war pictures but which lacks the rigour necessary to altogether reject them.In short, it belongs to a category of British film which could be described as ‘commercial-film-with-a-conscience’. 


Scott Anthony (May 2009)


Works Cited

Chapman, J., and Cull. N., Projecting Empire: Imperialism and Popular Culture (London: I B Tauris, 2009).

Constantine, S., The Making of British Colonial Development Policy, 1914-1940 (London: Cass, 1984).

Cowie, Mervyn, Fly, Vulture (London: Harrap,1961).

Mackenzie, Fiona D., Land, Ecology and Resistance in Kenya, 1880-1952 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).

Mungazi, A., The Last British Liberals in Africa: Michael Blundell and Garfield Todd Dickson (Westport: Praeger, 1999).

Steinhart, E., Black Poachers, White Hunters: A social history of hunting in Colonial Kenya (Oxford: James Curry, 2006).

Wright, B.,‘The Cinema’, The Spectator, 11 October 1946, Vol.177 No.6172, 364.

Watt, H., Don’t Look at the Camera (London: Elek, 1974).



  • IVORY HUNTER (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
107.18 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
Colour (Technicolor)
9663 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain