Elsa the lion captured the public imagination in Born Free. But her memory lives on in Kenya, and in the work of conservationist and former hellraiser Tony Fitzjohn
As Tony Fitzjohn approaches the lion cub, he does two things. First, he holds out a clenched fist. He is giving the cub a chance to have a good sniff at him. Then he crouches down and leans in until their heads touch. The cub gently rubs its nose and mouth against Fitzjohn’s neck. Fitzjohn buries his face in the cub’s fur. “Hi, fella,” he says softly.
Few have more experience raising lions than Tony Fitzjohn. He trained with George Adamson, the conservationist made famous by the bestselling book Born Free. Working with Adamson in Kenya’s Kora National Park during the Seventies and Eighties, Fitzjohn took dozens of orphaned and captive lions and released them back into the wild. Then, in 1989, at the age of 83, Adamson was murdered by Somali poachers. His base, Kampi ya Simba (“Camp of the Lions”), was burnt down and the project closed.
This cub represents Fitzjohn’s attempt to restart the programme: the first lion at Kora for 25 years. “I had a promise to keep to George – that I would try to make sure Kora survived into the future,” Fitzjohn tells me. “I wanted it to be a living memorial to his work.”
The 68-year-old has more than kept that promise, rebuilding Kampi ya Simba down to the last detail, including the sand-floored mess hut, with thatched roof and cement-covered hessian walls. Adamson used to sit here in front of an ancient typewriter, surrounded by a litter of books, papers and a multitude of creatures: ground squirrels, guinea fowl and a monitor lizard known as Guildford. He hired Jamie Manuel, a naturalist and experienced guide, to run the camp and held numerous meetings with the Kenya Wildlife Service. Then, Fitzjohn heard about Mugie, a four-month-old lion cub that had been washed up on a riverbank after a flash flood, and he knew this was his chance to put his plans into action.
Their first meeting, at Old Jogi, a private game reserve 140 miles from Kora, was captured on camera for an ITV documentary presented by the actor Martin Clunes, a close friend of Fitzjohn’s. It’s a poignant moment, one that makes clear just how close the project is to the conservationist’s heart. “I’m excited, I’m nervous, I feel a bit sick,” he tells Clunes.
Although elephants and rhinos get the most publicity, lions in Africa face an equally serious crisis. There are about 500,000 elephants left on the continent and only 30,000 lions; if something isn’t done, lions could die out in the wild in less than 10 years. Fitzjohn believes his work is vital to their future, but when it came to Mugie, there were challenges that had not existed in Adamson’s day.
Poaching had increased in Kora, as had the number of herdsmen grazing camels and cattle (they see lions as a threat to their livestock and are prepared to shoot or poison them). Although the laughing cries of predatory hyenas were always present, numbers of these, too, had increased.
“You can’t move a kilometre without seeing a hyena,” says Wilson Njue, the Kenya Wildlife Service warden in charge of Kora. You cannot walk at night there are so many.” Fitzjohn also faced a mountain of red tape. He knew Mugie’s chances of survival would be greatly enhanced if he could build up a pride of lions for mutual protection and was promised four lion cubs from the Nairobi Animal Orphanage. But, one year after Mugie’s arrival, the documentary shows Mugie still alone.
In Pic :George and Joy Adamson with Elsa the lioness
Anyone who has read Born Free or seen the 1966 film starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, will know something of the skill and dedication required to return a lion to the wild. Written by Joy Adamson, George’s wife, the book tells the story of Elsa, a cub that was orphaned when George is forced to shoot a lioness in self-defence. After raising her like a surrogate child and teaching her to hunt, the couple set her free in neighbouring Meru National Park, changing the public perception of lions forever. Because of the emotional bond the Adamsons formed with Elsa, lions could no longer be dismissed simply as brutal killers to be shot while on safari. Elsa became a symbol for all animals’ right to live in the wild.
In real life, however, the Adamsons’ relationship was volatile – Joy was known as the “man-eater of Meru” for her quick temper and sexual adventures – and the couple separated (although were never divorced) even before the film was released. Joy, who died in 1980, moved on to the nearby Shaba game reserve, where she worked with leopards, and George moved to Kora. Fitzjohn joined him there in 1971.
The adopted son of a father who worked in a bank, Fitzjohn grew up in north London. A loner and a rebel, the only books he loved as a boy were the Tarzan stories. After school he quit a job as a management trainee to become, first, a nightclub bouncer, then an Outward Bound instructor, and then a long-distance truck driver in South Africa before going to Kenya, where he met Joy Adamson at Lake Naivasha. She told him her husband was looking for help; his previous assistant had been killed by a lion. For Fitzjohn, arriving at Kora was like coming home.
After a week, Adamson asked him how long he planned to stay and instead of replying “six months”, as Adamson expected, he said: “About 10 to 15 years.” In the end, he stayed for 18.
“It was magical,” he recalls, when we meet in London. “We were free as the birds. I’d swing through the trees and run with the lions. I just led this Tarzan life I’d always wanted to.” Although they were polar opposites – Adamson was humble and calm; Fitzjohn, restless and explosive – both came alive in a natural setting and enjoyed danger. “Never try to shoot a charging animal until it’s within 10ft of you,” was one of Adamson’s early tips. “He regarded me as the wayward son he never had and I regarded him as the dad I never had and always wanted,” says Fitzjohn.
The first lion he got to know was Christian. Bought from Harrods in 1969 by two young Australians, John Rendall and Anthony “Ace” Bourke, the animal had been raised as a pet. But when Christian grew too big for the basement of their furniture shop in World’s End, Chelsea, he was brought to Kora by Bill Travers. “We were both from London,” says Fitzjohn. “I didn’t known what I was doing, Christian didn’t have a clue either. So Christian and I grew up together. He and I went back to the wild together, with George rather amusingly looking on.”
Incredibly, when Rendall and Bourke travelled to Kora to visit Christian a year later, the lion remembered them and there is video footage of him wrapping his front legs around their shoulders and nuzzling their faces. (The clip became a viral hit on YouTube more than 30 years later.)
Fitzjohn and Adamson reintroduced more than 30 lions and 10 leopards into the wild. And, despite its remote setting, the project received many visitors – journalists, royalty (including the King of Toro in Uganda and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands), scientists and people simply looking for escape or adventure. In his 2010 memoir, Born Wild, Fitzjohn writes about another of the regular guests – Khalid Khashoggi, the son of Adnan, then one of the richest men in the world.
“He used to fly into camp and whisk me off to evermore glamorous locations where we would behave very badly and have a great time,” he recalls. Adrian House, author of The Great Safari: The Lives of George and Joy Adamson, also testifies to Fitzjohn’s wild ways. “There were pretty girls,” he writes. “George noticed Tony’s bed in smithereens outside his hut after a night with an Amazon.”
Nevertheless, the work the men were doing received praise from some of the world’s leading conservationists, including David Attenborough, Desmond Morris and the primatologist Jane Goodall. “The careful documentation… of individual animals, their unique personalities, and the events of their rich and varied lives, represents a major accomplishment for science,” wrote Goodall in 1992.
There were also critics, however, including George’s wife, Joy, who maintained that he encouraged a dangerous familiarity between his lions and people. Adamson’s lions were not to be trusted, she claimed, because he destroyed in them a supposed “natural” fear of man.
Certainly there were close escapes. One lion mauled a warden’s son as he sat in a car. Arusha, a lion from a zoo in Rotterdam, broke Adamson’s pelvis during a game of hide-and-seek. “It was weird that,” says Fitzjohn. “She just got a bit carried away.” Fitzjohn himself was almost killed in 1975 after his head ended up in a lion’s mouth during an attack. (He was rescued by his favourite lion, Freddie, who went for Fitzjohn’s attacker.)
“We don’t raise them to be good with people, we raise them to go back to the wild,” says Fitzjohn. “The key is to embrace their wildness, not try to tame them. Sometimes that wildness would trigger something in them.”
“George and I survived with big cats for so long because we [learnt] instinctively to understand not just their behaviour but something more,” he writes in his memoir. “It had to be felt. And over the years we felt ‘it’ more and more.”
In Pic :George Adamson and Tony Fitzjohn
There was also, it turned out, an even more acute threat from humans. About 18 months after Fitzjohn left Kora, Somali thieves who had been hanging around the camp attacked a vehicle that was leaving the site. They pulled Adamson’s assistant from the vehicle, breaking his legs, and raped a young woman visitor. Adamson heard the shots and drove straight at the attackers.
“George went down in a hail of bullets from five AK-47s,” says Fitzjohn. “I felt so guilty. I knew it was going to happen and then, when he was killed, I was just full of guilt and sadness.”
In an effort to deal with his grief, Fitzjohn threw himself into a new project: running a national game reserve in Tanzania called Mkomazi. When he arrived in 1989, it was a 1,350 sq-mile stretch of tsetse-fly-infested wasteland; now it has an airstrip, electricity, running water and 600 miles of roads. Fitzjohn also set up a programme for breeding and releasing the endangered African wild dog, and, in 1997, established a black rhino sanctuary. He now has 20 black rhino, a quarter of Tanzania’s total.
And Adamson’s death was a turning point for Fitzjohn in two other ways: he got sober, after attending an AA treatment centre in Minnesota, and, in his late forties, married and started a family.
“Fitz was hugely hyperactive [at Kora],” says Philip Mason, who runs Elsa’s Kopje, a safari lodge in Meru. “He was pretty wild and a f—— nightmare at times, but then he gave up drink and has done incredibly valuable things for conservation since he was sober.” In his memoir, Fitzjohn insists he did do a lot during his drinking days, but “some of it was pretty destructive. I knew I couldn’t carry on as I was. I was causing and feeling too much pain.”
Until they were nine, his children (he has four) were all educated at Mkomazi by trainee teachers recruited through an advertisement in the Times Educational Supplement. Now they are at Stowe, the boarding school in Buckingham, and Fitzjohn and his wife, Lucy, are left with the rhinos.
“You don’t play with rhinos,” he says. “When they’re babies, you let them chase you and let them go between your legs, but with a big rhino…” He shakes his head. He has one favourite, an eight-year-old called Jabu from the Czech Republic. “We get on well. But I don’t really understand him and he doesn’t really understand me. I can rub him on the face and scratch his ears and feed him a few carrots. He’s very nice, but it’s much more of a grown-up prehistoric relationship than cuddling lions.”
The connection to lions is one of the reasons Fitzjohn decided to return to Kora. In the new documentary, he tells Clunes: “I’ve always wanted these,” gesturing at Mugie. “It reduces me to tears, it’s wonderful.” His plan was for Mugie to be raised in the compound until big enough to go out for walks. The cub would then be taught how to hunt and, when he was two, would be set free in the wild. “All we do is act as surrogate mothers and keep an eye on them until they’re able to do it themselves,” says Fitzjohn. “It’s not rocket science. All it needs is love.”
Martin Clunes and Tony Fitzjohn with Mugie, an orphaned lion cub
Fitzjohn is now obsessed with building a fence around Kora. “To keep out stock, basically – tens of thousands of camels, cows and goats.” He has found a backer willing to spend £800,000.
George Adamson’s legacy is clearer at Meru. Like Kora, Meru was ravaged by poachers and cattle herders at the end of the 20th century and almost stripped of its wildlife, but, between 2000 and 2005, the park was restored. There are now 200 lions, mostly desert lions with small manes, although, occasionally, big-maned lions can be seen gazing through the tall grasses or resting in the shade of an acacia tree.
If you get up close, you might see a resemblance to Christian. Locals believe he crossed the Tana river from Kora where he ingratiated himself with local females and went on to have cubs of his own. “That would explain some of the very big-maned lions we have here,” says Mason. “A bit of World’s End is at the end of the world here.”
Meru is where Born Free began and many arrive like pilgrims, to journey to significant sites. “One woman has Elsa tattooed on her back and comes every year,” says Mason. The Adamsons’ camp by the Ura river, where Elsa was released into the wild, no longer exists, though the magnificent tree, under which Elsa and Joy used to lie, still stands, its branches almost sweeping the water. Elsa died of tick fever when she was five and is buried here, her grave marked by a simple stone.
“This is where it all happened; it’s terribly important,” says Vibeke Collis, a Born Free devotee, who is here with her husband from Scotland to celebrate her 60th birthday. “I’ve read all the Adamsons’ books. It’s a very special story that changed the world’s perceptions of lions. They showed that lions aren’t wild crazy creatures; they have feelings.”
Martin Clunes and a Lion Called Mugie is on ITV on April 4 at 9pm