Virginia McKenna said her damehood “really belongs” to campaigners who are fighting to “end wild animal suffering and keep wildlife in the wild”.

The 91-year-old actress, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, has become a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to wildlife conservation and to wild animal welfare, in the New Year Honours.

Her charity campaigns for animals to remain free from captivity and promotes the protection of endangered species and natural habitats.

As one of the most popular and acclaimed British film actresses of the 1950s and 1960s, McKenna became a wildlife campaigner alongside her husband Bill Travers and their son Will, after McKenna and Travers featured in the 1966 film Born Free, set in Kenya.

McKenna said of her damehood: “This award may be in my name, but I feel it really belongs to all those striving to end wild animal suffering and keep wildlife in the wild.

Virginia McKenna

Virginia McKenna, winner of the lifetime achievement award at the Animal Hero awards (Ian West/PA)

“Bill and I shared a belief in the power of one. One animal that needs rescuing; one species that needs protecting; one human community that needs supporting; one ecosystem that needs conserving.

“And the power that resides in each of us every day to do something about it.”

Speaking to the PA news agency alongside son Will, who is president of the foundation, McKenna said she had been “speechless” to discover she was to become a dame.

“I just didn’t know what to say because you never expect things like that,” she added.

“The rewards I’ve had in my life have been so amazing. But really it’s because of the people I’ve worked with and our charity and the animals that I’ve got to know.

“You are not expecting presents and gifts for doing what you love doing, and I’ve got this amazing honour.

“That is the word, I feel – I am honoured to receive it because I feel it’s not about me. It’s about everybody who, like me, cares deeply about the issues we try and battle with. That’s really what it boils down to.”

McKenna said her husband, who died in 1994, would have given her a “big hug” had he still been alive.

She added: “Without him we never could be where we are now and this amazing situation would never have arisen. So he is part of it. Absolutely right, and profoundly so.”

Will Travers added to PA: “As mum has alluded to, this is recognition of the incredible work of the Born Free team as well, over all those years.

“People who have come and gone, people are are still working with us, whether that’s in Kenya, Ethiopia, the United States, South Africa, UK, Sri Lanka, even Australia.

“We have an incredible team who have achieved an enormous amount on relatively little.

“This is the springboard for the next phase of Born Free and all the organisations that share our values and share our principles.

“So I’m energised by the fact that my mum – my dear mum – has received this extraordinary honour.”

McKenna previously told PA in 2021 that her Golden Globe-nominated role as Joy Adamson, and Travers playing the conservationist George Adamson, was a “life-changing experience”.

While filming in Africa, she said she and Travers learned to read the “body language” and “signs” that lions use to tell humans what is and what is not OK.

The actress added: “We just got to understand them, and they us as well.”

Virginia McKenna

Virginia McKenna and her son Will Travers with her OBE for services to the arts and animal conservation in 2004 (Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA)

McKenna, Will Travers and Bill Travers founded an organisation called Zoo Check, which aimed to end the exploitation of wild animals in zoos and circuses, in 1984, and later, in 1991, the Born Free Foundation.

Born on June 7 1931 in London, she trained as an actress at the Central School of Speech and Drama and at Dundee Repertory Company and made her film debut in 1952 with The Second Mrs Tanqueray.

McKenna won a Bafta for best actress for her performance in the film A Town Like Alice in 1956, and three years later was nominated for best actress again in Carve Her Name With Pride.

She became a key British export, with the international films The Wreck Of The Mary Deare in 1959 and Waterloo in 1970, and won awards including the BBC best actress award for Juliet in the TV production of Romeo And Juliet in 1955

She and Travers also starred in The Lions Are Free in 1967, a documentary about the lion cubs of Born Free, and several animal orientated films, including An Elephant Called Slowly in 1969.

Her stage performances have been significant and included winning the Olivier Award for best actress in a British musical for her performance in The King And I in 1979 opposite Yul Brynner, and playing Queen Gertrude to Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in the 1980s.

McKenna also appeared fleetingly in Sliding Doors, playing John Hannah’s mother, in 1998, and recently in Wings in 2020 opposite Miriam Margolyes.

She was made an OBE in 2004 for her services to wildlife and to the arts, received honorary doctorates from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Bedfordshire, and a lifetime achievement award at the Animal Hero awards in 2017.

She has also been responsible for helping create and furnish the Gavin Maxwell Museum on the Scottish island of Eilean Ban, the last home of the author and naturalist, most famous for his book Ring Of Bright Water.

Mckenna continues to work on biodiversity and animal welfare, and to help develop alternatives to trophy hunting.

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