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The Life and Death of an Icon

The day George Adamson died began like any other Sunday in Kora, now Kora National Park. The allblack, fan-tailed ravens were no louder that August morning in 1989 than any other. At first light, they diligently went to work as they always did, waking the occupants of Kampi ya Simba – Camp of Lions. The passerines were savvy enough to know that once Adamson emerged from his banda, or hut, they would soon be fed.

But first, the 83-year-old, with his long, white hair and bushy eyebrows and beard to match, ambled to a secluded part of the compound where three cubs were also awaiting him. Being the first person to have successfully reintroduced domesticated lions back into the wild (“George understood lions and the ways of many other creatures,” says Virginia McKenna of her beloved friend. “It was that understanding that allowed him to establish the first man-made prides of lions which, over the years, he successfully returned to the wild in Meru and Kora.”), Adamson, at this point, had become internationally recognised for his work. So, having made sure that his furry tenants were alright, he walked to the makuti thatched dining area for breakfast, about half of which he would share with squirrels, some guinea fowls and, of course, the ever so social ravens.

There were several German guests scheduled to arrive at Kampi ya Simba on this particular fateful day, not so much to tour the place, but to visit with Adamson and discuss his work. While he waited for them, Adamson, who kept a journal throughout his life, kept busy at his typewriter. More than 20 years after the release of the celebrated movie Born Free and the fame that surrounded it, he continued to receive a constant stream of letters from supporters of his work, and he seized any opportunity to respond to them. While Adamson remained the same, Kora had changed since he first moved there 19 years earlier. The acacia trees could still be spotted here and there, the Tana River continued to flow and the tall hills adjacent to the camp remained majestic, but Kora was no longer the untouched expanse it once was. Now there were herdsmen looking to graze their livestock, poachers slaying rhinos and elephants for their tusks, and Somali bandits, known as shiftas, stealing from and harassing the locals, as well as killing wildlife, making the area unsafe for animals and people alike. Nonetheless, Adamson went about his day-to-day. He “lived a simple life, in the heart of the African bush, with the lions he adored,” says McKenna, actress turned conservationist and founder of the U.K. conservation charity, The Born Free Foundation. “His life’s work was to give those lions the chance of freedom and to protect the wilderness they depended on.” It was a quiet life, not marred by the usual daily commotion of sirens, deadlines and traffic. “I’ve not taken a morning paper for 40 years. The news I need is printed on the ground,” Adamson is quoted by David Allen in Elsa’s Legacy: The Born

Free Story.

As the sun hit its peak in the midday sky, the familiar drone of an airplane broke the day’s quiescence. Inge Ledertheil, another guest from Germany who was already staying at the preserve, offered to go to the airstrip and welcome the new visitors. Adamson commissioned one of his workers, Bitacha Dirkicha, to go along with her, and the two set off in a green safari Land Rover, happily bumping along through the wild landscape. There could have been no sign of trouble. Moments later gun shots rang out. Adamson and four of his employees rushed to the scene, assuming that Ledertheil and Dirkicha had run into shiftas. When they arrived, the attackers had already broken both of Dirkicha’s legs, and they were now harassing Ledertheil for her belongings. When Adamson tried to come to her rescue the shiftas aimed their rifles at his vehicle and started shooting. The tragedy over in but a breath of time, has lingered on in the memory of conservationists and those who knew the man, before he was to become an icon.

The Root of Conservation Work in Kenya

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In 1966, the movie Born Free told the story of famed lioness Elsa, who was cared for from a young age by Joy and George Adamson. From left to right: Actress Virginia McKenna, who played Joy in the film, George Adamson, actor Bill Travers, who portrayed George, and Joy Adamson

Today wildlife conservation is principal in Kenya, thanks to the determination and hard work of one man. According to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) senior scientist Dr. Charles Musyoki, Adamson’s passion for lions and their conservation was influential in educating people – scientists and would be conservationists – about the behaviour of lions. He was “instrumental in those days when we had very limited knowledge about conservation, very limited capacity to conserve as a nation, [but] he was able then to demonstrate that there’s something that can be done and actually work to benefit conservation.”

“working with [and supporting] over 27 community wildlife conservancies...where a sizeable majority of lions reside,”

says Munira Bashir, Kenya Program Director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). While they may not be as involved in the same capacity as KWS, their role more focused on conserving the lands and waters that living things are dependent on, Bashir does indicate that their dedication is partially derived from the Adamsons. “George and Joy Adamson were very passionate in what they did – conserving and protecting the lions,” she utters. “I would say this is passion and dedication of the highest order.”

Internationally, organisations such as WildlifeNOW and The Born Free Foundation are highly active in preserving the the World Lion Day. The Born Free Foundation, which also has a team in Kenya, has so far put up 160 Lion Proof Bomas, ensuring the safety of the animals and communities. McKenna was a lifelong friend of Adamson and also featured in the famed movie Born Free. Of Adamson, McKenna says she truly misses him. “But his spirit – like Bill’s [her late husband] – is always with me. Today, it is at the heart of what we strive for at The Born Free Foundation where the plight of individual animals and the need for compassionate conservation embody a philosophy that will endure.”

The same efforts have been carried on by WildlifeNOW founder, and Adamson’s former assistant in Kora, Tony Fitzjohn. His work, after years learning so much from Adamson, is geared at preserving African wildlife and making sure that “in a day and age when wildlife and tourism is being chucked down the drain of oil and gas,” the conservation attempts of Adamson “should still remind us to look after what we’ve got.”

The Plight of the Lion

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Clockwise: Adamson sits down for a meal with godson, Jonny Baxendale; Boy, the lion that features in Born Free and was rehabilitated in Meru after the film, takes a walk in the wild with Adamson and Jonny; Adamson, who always had a pipe sticking out of his mouth scouts the area as Boy lazes on the roof of the Land Rover; After making a kill, the head of the buffalo is mounted on the tree by Adamson.

Only a decade and a half ago there were at least 15,000 lions in Kenya. With an 87 percent decrease between then and now, lions in Kenya are on the brink of extinction, the populace reduced to less than 2,000. “Lions have faced quite a number of challenges and these challenges to a large extent have been human induced principally because the human population has been growing over the years in Kenya,” says Dr. Musyoki. In Adamson’s day, the arid and semi-arid areas suitable for lion habitation were sparsely populated, if at all. But Adamson saw how drastically that changed especially when he moved to Kora and realised this may eventually cause a problem, which it has.

“The cause of the decrease in numbers is attributed to human-wildlife conflict,” says Bashir. This results from “retaliatory killing by people when they lose their livestock to lions through predation,” though “human encroachment and destruction to their habitats through other land uses,” such as settlement and agriculture also factor in to the reduction of the lion population. This means, as Dr. Musyoki expounds, that lions have been compressed to areas where people have not settled and where the national and county governments have set up conservation areas – the national parks, the national reserves and the community conservancies. The diminishing lion numbers and loss of habitat, which also leads to loss of natural food for the lions, was something Adamson battled with, many lions meeting their death in the hands of farmers who would kill them using poison, and today, the same tortuous death still takes place. “There have been cases of spearing,” Dr. Musyoki relays, and “we’ve had cases of poisoning where if lions kill a cow or a sheep or a goat, then the affected people chase away the lions...lace the carcass with some form of poison because they know the lions will come back and when they come back and feed on that carcass they die.”

Today KWS faces some of the same challenges Adamson faced. Just as there are people who support conservation work, there are those who do not fully understand its purpose; particularly those who have to contend with the lions for their personal livelihood. “We occupy a very delicate position in conservation matters,” Dr. Musyoki says, “because we are supposed to protect and conserve lions and we are also supposed to protect the public from the lions.” In his day, there were those who disagreed with Adamson’s work, viewing it as a way of nurturing and rehabilitating man-eaters, which was essentially unsafe for the human population. His passion and work however was really geared toward preserving the lions, conserving areas for them and ensuring their survival.

“Lions shouldn’t be a liability to Kenyans. Lions are supposed to be viewed as assets to Kenyans,” Dr. Musyoki reasons. They are one of the Big Five and are therefore supposed to be viewed as animals of enormous benefit to the country, being that they are a main attraction when it comes to tourism. “The lion occupies a very important position in Kenya’s history and symbolism,” he concludes. But all is not lost. In the next five years, KWS proposes to have the lion population increase to 3,000 and up to 4,000 in 10 years. However, caution is advisable because excessive numbers may also mean increase in conflict. “The strategy is premised on three things. One is to conserve as many lions as we can within the current circumstances. Secondly to conserve as many of their food species as possible and then thirdly is to eliminate or limit human lion conflict.” Last year, The Wildlife Act was passed re-introducing compensation to farmers who lose livestock. Additionally, KWS is involved in assisting people put up Lion Proof Bomas around their homesteads as well as encouraging large land owners to get into conservation work, which has so far produced results. “We have more than 100 private and community wildlife areas,” says Dr. Musyoki, and “the total acreage that has been converted into wildlife conservation is in excess of 8,000 km².” This is in Isiolo and northwards, where Adamson’s work was based.

In his 33 years working with lions, Adamson jotted down his moments with them as well as his concerns for the wild creatures. In one of his musings, he reflected on his work as it was viewed and his apprehension of what was to come. “Quite Pride and Joy, the life of a warden involved “keeping a check on man-eating lions, crop-raiding elephants [and] poachers.” In those days, poaching was rare — not the destructive menace it is today. However, professional hunting did threaten wildlife. “There were a lot of people hunting, and he was very, very strict with them,” Baxendale says, about his godfather. “He never ever allowed them to get away with anything. He was in total control.” Adamson also had the foresight to realise that if sport hunting continued, there would eventually be no wildlife left, which led him to persuade the national reserve councils to protect some of the more vulnerable areas and forbid the practice. That was the beginning of his conservation work, and for Kenya, the start of her national parks, because in those days the areas were mainly national reserves. Today “we’ve got Samburu Park and Buffalo Springs and Shaba, and all these places,” Baxendale points out, “because [Adamson] instigated all that.”

A Family Man

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A common occurrence – besides Adamson frequently walking bare-chested – with the lions and lionesses that Adamson took care of was sitting atop the Land Rover that he used to drive around the reserve in.

Perhaps the most significant, personal qualities to Adamson, besides his striking facial hair, were: he hardly wore a shirt and was always in shorts and sandals, a stick in his hand and sometimes a rifle hanging from his shoulder. There was tranquillity to him in the way he spoke, walked and approached everything. If you ask close friends what kind of man Adamson was, “he was the quiet, modest, delightful man he remained to the end,” McKenna will say, while Fitzjohn adds “kind, forgiving, immensely patient, enormously brave, at peace with himself and the world he had lived in for so long,” and Baxendale fittingly utters, “he was such a gentleman; he was such a lovely, easy person.”

Four years after landing his dream job, Adamson, while at a Christmas party, met the woman who would later become his life partner. At the time they met, though, she was married. “I realised that Joy and myself were falling in love with each other and this created a really embarrassing situation,” Adamson said in a 1980 interview. A month after they met, he had to go to Nairobi for his usual meetings with the senior game warden. “I made up my mind on no account would I see anything of Joy. So I went to a hotel and booked a room. As I came out of the door, who did I see but Joy, and that was the end of all my good intentions.” In 1944, after Joy finalised her divorce, the two got married. “We spent most of the time on safari, out on the plains, into the deserts and forest, up to the lakes and the mountains, and “Who will now care for the animals, for they cannot look after themselves? Are there young men and women in Kenya who are willing to take on this charge? Who will raise their voices, when mine is carried away on the wind?”

down to the coral reefs of the coast,” Adamson wrote in his autobiography. For the most part it was a happy time, though Joy suffered multiple miscarriages, preventing them from experiencing the ultimate adventure of parenthood. In 1956, five years before Adamson retired as senior game warden, a lion mauled an acquaintance’s brother, prompting him and a game scout to go into the Isiolo bush in pursuit of the animal. “Suddenly, I saw [the game scout] turn, look under a rock and fire his rifle, and at that moment a lioness dashed out straight at him,” Adamson later recalled in an interview. “I couldn’t shoot because he was in my line of fire, but luckily the game scout fired, causing the lioness to turn, and as she turned, I managed to shoot her.” But by saving his colleague’s life, he had orphaned three female cubs hidden deep in a cleft among the rocks.

Like many a men who return home from work bearing gifts for their wives, on that day, instead of flowers, Adamson brought Joy a trio of furry infants. The felines were irresistible, and the fact that they were wild animals was simply forgotten for the time being. In a roundabout way, the cubs somehow cemented the couple’s union, fitting in the role of children. As they grew older, though, it became too demanding to care for all three, and, unfortunately, two were sent to a European zoo. The littlest, Elsa, stayed with the couple. Accustomed to playing with her sisters, the lack of their presence didn’t go unnoticed as Elsa spent time looking for them. “It was pathetic to see her searching for her sisters,” Adamson wrote in his diary, so to help her overcome her sorrow, “we let her sleep on our bed...there’s no doubt that our shared devotion to Elsa had brought Joy and me as close to each other as we’d ever been, just as a child might have done, and Elsa took the place of a child in our family album.” And she would change both of their lives forever. Parenting a Lioness

Pre-independent Kenya was a time when regard for wildlife was non-existent. Hunting wild animals and putting their heads up as trophies, while their soft, fuzzy coats were used as rugs was the order of the day. So to have the Adamsons come into the picture, not only rescue the cubs, but proceed to nurture one as their own, their child, was truly ambitious, larger-than-life in fact. Regardless, Elsa was still a lion, and by her third birthday that was becoming more and more evident. As McKenna notes, “when Elsa came into their lives, they both were totally dedicated to returning her to the wild,” denoting the Adamsons knew this day would come. The happy parents knew she had to be returned to the wild. The problem was, Elsa had lived a sheltered life: she didn’t know how to hunt for food, it was brought to her in a safe environment. Similarly, this was something that had never been done and even for Adamson’s 23 years of experience as a game warden, this was new territory for him. “We begun to plan for her education for life in the wild, for Joy and I were as one that she should not end up in a zoo,” Adamson had noted down, but “Despite all of my years as a warden, and my particular interest in lions, I had no real knowledge how to set about her task,” penned Adamson in his diary, as quoted in Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story. “As far as I could discover, literally no one had attempted such a thing before.” The couple began by taking her for walks along the river, and with time she learned to stalk the waterbuck. This gradually progressed to Adamson making kills in front of Elsa, then allowing her to take the dead animal. “It’s a shame they’d sent the others away because they should have released all three together,” Baxendale says. “They realised it was a huge mistake, but nobody knew anything about lions in those days. You can’t release lions on their own, you have to release them as a group so that they can defend each other and also so they can hunt.”

Soon enough, however, Elsa was hunting her own prey. The problem now was that she kept coming back home to her foster parents. “It’s really heart breaking to leave Elsa in the bush alone, like deserting our child,” Adamson wrote at the time. “It seems so shabby to wait until she’s asleep and steal away. What makes it doubly difficult is her obvious pleasure seeing us every time.” This was not the only unhappiness the Adamsons were facing. Elsa’s foster parents had hit a rocky spot in their relationship. Baxendale who spent years working with his godfather remembers Joy as “amazingly unpleasant to George a lot of the time. She was very aggressive and she was always accusing him of being an alcoholic.” According to Baxendale, her theatrics were unfailing, it appears, from storming away from camp and forcing Adamson to go in search of her to firing a gun in pretence of murdering herself. “She had what you might call an artistic temperament. She was not at all easy to get along with. We used to have some terrible rows,” mentioned Adamson.

Moving Forward

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Adamson and Baxendale take another drive while at Meru National Reserve, taking a moment to stretch their legs as they visit with their pal Boy.

To preserve Elsa’s memory, Joy decided to share her story with the world. When she first approached publishers with the idea, she was rejected; undeterred, however, she wrote the book anyway. Released in 1960, Born Free went on to sell at least five million copies in 24 different languages. The idea that a lioness could recognise and reciprocate human emotions instinctively drew people in. Several years later, the title was adapted into a movie, making Elsa a household name around the world. Unfortunately, though, the feline icon died from tick fever before its release. “As dawn was breaking, she suddenly got up, walked to the front of the tent and collapsed,” Adamson wrote of Elsa’s last moments. “I held her head in my lap. A few minutes later, she sat up, gave a most heartrending and terrible cry, and fell over. Elsa was dead. My Elsa gone!” The movie is how “Bill [Travers] and I first met [Adamson] — when we went up to the location where the film Born Free was to be made,” says McKenna, who played Joy while her late husband, actor Bill Travers, played her on-screen husband. Adamson worked as the technical adviser during the film’s shooting, helping out with the lions on set. When shooting was finished, he took three of the lions that were in the film — Boy, Girl and Ugas — to Meru National Park to reintroduce them into the wild.stayed close. Joy moved to Meru as well, where she began rehabilitating cheetahs. Not everyone supported their efforts, though.

Peter Jenkins, the senior warden at the time in Meru, and his wife and two kids were driving from Joy’s camp when they saw Baxendale, then Adamson’s assistant, and Boy, who was lounging on the roof of his car, as their lions liked to do. When Jenkins pulled up, Boy jumped down and stared at the children in the back. Baxendale yelled for Jenkins to go, but Boy was too fast. He leapt in and grabbed Jenkins’ son Mark by the head. “Peter managed to start the car and took off,” while Boy, trying to hold on, “went skidding along the ground on his back legs and eventually fell off the car,” Baxendale recalls.

Fortunately, Mark wasn’t seriously hurt, but the damage had been done. Although Adamson was not asked to kill Boy, the Adamsons were asked to leave Meru. As fate would have it, however, the journey with Boy was not over yet. Before they left, Boy injured his foreleg, forcing Adamson to bring him along. Their next and final stop would be Kora.

Tragedy Strikes

While Joy moved up north and enjoyed the celebrity status generated from the book and film, making millions, Adamson preferred his undisturbed corner of the wild and needed few possessions. Now in Kora, he continued to rehabilitate lions with the help of several others who joined him, including his brother. “My younger brother Terence, now in his late seventies, shares our flimsy cage,” Adamson wrote. “An expert, self-taught engineer, he built and keeps up our huts, our fence, our airstrip and our roads.” Though, Terence, who was also a skilled botanist, favoured elephants over cats. The contentedness of this world was punctured when Boy attacked one of the assistants. In the early morning hours of June 6, 1971, Adamson and his cook, Kimani, heard cries coming from the camp. “I grabbed my rifle and ran to the back gate of the compound,” Adamson wrote in his diary. “I saw Boy with Stanley in his jaws. As I rushed at him, he dropped Stanley and moved further into the bush. I ran a few paces past Stanley and shot Boy through the heart.” When he looked back he realised Stanley, one of the men who’d helped nurse Boy back to health, was dead. “The lions are very quiet,” he wrote. “They know something’s happened. Boy my old friend, farewell.” Adamson would eventually release more than 20 young lions back into the wild.

What he had learned to that point about lions he taught his new assistant in Kora, Fitzjohn, who became a needed addition in the reserve. Fitzjohn refers to himself as Adamson’s adopted child, and quite a difficult one at that, because when he got to Kora, “It was ADVENTURE time, but I never realized how deeply it would affect me,” he says. “Having done everything in my life for ‘kicks’ for a few months before, I now found myself truly involved in something that both made huge sense to me and I found immensely worthwhile.” As for his relationship with Adamson, “He was like the dad I’d always wanted and he, with no kids, had found a rebel rousing, hippie-ish, pretty tough and capable son substitute.” And it’s as well that Fitzjohn was with Adamson in Kora.