George Adamson was born in 1906 in Dholpur, India. The son of an Irish father and an English mother, his father, Harry, left India for South Africa in 1924. George and his younger brother Terence, travelled to Cape town to meet up with him but discovered, when they arrived there, that Harry had got no further than Kenya, where he had bought a farm in Limuru. So George and Terence set sail for Mombasa.
Between 1924 and 1938 George Adamson tried a dozen ways of making a living – road construction (too hard), running a mail service (the car went up in flames!), farming (too boring), goat and beeswax trading (lost money), Locust fighting (lost his job), gold prospecting (found none) and hunting (few clients wanted to ride in the sidecar of his motorcycle). Finally, in 1938 he found what he had been looking for – he joined the Kenya Game Department where he remained until his retirement in 1963.
George was first posted to Isiolo and given a dry, thorn bush wilderness the size of Great Britain, to patrol with 30 rangers. He encountered many dangerous beasts, poachers and situations in his first few years, but always managed to come out on top in his adventures.
On Christmas eve in 1942, while attending a Christmas party in Garissa, George Adamson became prey to a creature he eventually succumbed to, voluntarily. Her name was Friederike Victoria Bally née Gessner. Her then-husband, the Swiss botanist Peter Bally, had nicknamed her Joy. Joy’s divorce from Peter Bally and marriage to George in 1944 was achieved with great discretion and civil behaviour on all sides.
Both penniless, George and Joy moved into a new house built by Terence to accommodate Joy’s piano and easels. Her paintings of Kenya’s tribal peoples and flowers are still on display in the State House and in the National Museum.
Joy’s mercurial personality often clashed with George’s more tolerant and serene approach to life, but the two enriched each others’ lives. George’s job as a game warden sometimes called for him to perform unpleasant tasks such as shooting troublesome wild animals.
In February 1956 he was called upon to shoot a marauding lioness which he did. Soon after, weak cries coming from within a rock crevice nearby led him to 3 tiny lion cubs belonging to the now departed lioness. George Adamson took them back to the house in Isiolo where joy immediately adopted them. Growing up with humans, the lions became almost as tame as house cats. The Chief Game Warden, however, insisted that 2 of the cubs be sent away to a zoo in Europe.
The cub that was kept, named ‘Elsa’ by joy after Peter Bally’s mother, ended up profoundly changing their lives and touching the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world. One could say that the story of Elsa, told so eloquently by Joy in her book, ‘Born Free’, has made the single most important contribution to wildlife conservation by bringing awareness of the value of a wild animal’s life in its own right to public attention.
A great deal of love and affection was showered on Elsa and as George wrote in my pride and joy, “there is no doubt that our shared devotion to Elsa had brought Joy and me as close to each other as we had ever been, just as a child might have done – and Elsa took the place of a child in our family album.” During her lifetime joy had three miscarriages and was never able to have a child. Elsa became their child, as did other big cats later on in their lives.
As Elsa grew up and at the age of two came into heat for the first time, the Adamsons decided she would have to be reintroduced to the wild. She could not remain a pet forever, as many of a lion’s natural instincts were beginning to make themselves apparent.
The idea of sending her to a zoo was equivalent to putting her own child in prison for life. With the blessing of the Chief Game Warden, the Adamsons took Elsa to Masaai Mara National Reserve and tried to get her to hunt for herself.
The experiment, probably the first of its kind, was a failure. After returning to Isiolo, they obtained permission to try again in the Meru County Council Reserve, today the Meru National Park. This did not also work.
Elsa seemed much more at home in the thorn scrub territory of her birth and by 1959 she had proved that she could not fend for herself in the wild. The extraordinary thing was that even after having given birth to her own cubs, she remained emotionally and physically close to Joy and George whenever they came to visit her.
Elsa died in George’s arms in 1960 of tick fever, leaving behind her 3 half-grown cubs. The cubs were later successfully released in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
Joy wrote follow-up books to born free and the phenomenal success of the books resulted in her making extended lecture tours to most parts of the western world. In 1963, after first refusing, she finally agreed to allow Columbia Pictures to make a film of Born Free.
The film came at the ideal time for George, as he had retired from the Game Department and independence had come to Kenya – he had been considering leaving the country. Joy asked him to be the lion handler and a kind of technical adviser in the making of the film.
It was to change his life in unexpected ways. The filming, done near Naro Moru on the Laikipia plateau, lasted a year. Lions were brought in from circuses, private owners, the Nairobi Animal Orphanage and from the lion of Judah himself – Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
George Adamson and Joy came to know all the lions in the film intimately and it was during this time that George came to realise how much like people lions were. They each had their own distinct personalities and foibles. George also made close lifelong friends with the people selected to play the Adamsons in the film – the married couple Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. At the end of the filming, in 1965, George did what he could to save the lion cast from being sold off to zoos.
He only managed to save 3 named Boy, Girl and Ugas. Ted Goss, then the first warden of the newly formed Meru National Reserve, came to his rescue by offering a camp in the reserve for George to live in and carry out his rehabilitation work.
The camp was located near Mugwongo Hill in the shade of tall acacias in an open, red-earthed bush. Joy had turned her interests to Cheetahs. She set up camp 19 KM away from George’s to rehabilitate Pippa, as she recounted in her book, The Spotted Sphinx.
The three lions successfully learned to hunt for themselves and they were free in the wild rather than prisoners in a zoo but great controversy arose as to the scientific value and general wisdom of releasing lions who were unafraid of humans into populated areas.
These fears were realised when in 1969 Boy attacked and badly bit the son of the new Meru warden, Peter Jenkins. Director of National Parks, Perez Olindo ordered both Joy and George Adamson to wrap up their projects and move out of the reserve.
Through sheer chance, and because Boy had an injury, George flew him to Joy’s house, Elsamere, on lake Naivasha, for recovery. He left Girl, Ugas and their offspring in Meru forever. While living at Elsamere, George received a letter from Bill Travers in London. Travers proposed to bring out a lion named Christian, bought by two Australians in Harrod’s. It was getting a bit too big to keep in London.
George jumped at the idea. He somehow managed with the backing of the provincial Game Warden, Ken Smith, to move to the Kora area well away from any human settlements. In 1970, with Terence Adamson helping to make the roads, camp and landing strip, George moved to Kora Rock with Boy, Christian and a female orphan named Katania. The early days in Kora were some of the most enjoyable of his life, George was later to say.
Joy remained at Elsamere and in 1977 moved to Shaba National Reserve to begin her Leopard rehabilitation work. Joy did not approve of George’s continued lion work. She had long before cut him off from any support from the funds generated by her books and the film.
George survived on his small pension, contributions from well-wishers, and the royalties coming in from his 1968 autobiography, ‘Bwana Game’. Living in simple thatched bandas in the bush, he did not require nor ask for much.
In 1971 disaster struck. Boy attacked and killed a long-time camp assistant. It was a doubly sad day, as George had no option but to shoot Boy, his companion of 8 years.
Boy today lies buried in a peaceful lugga (dry streambed). In the years to come, George Adamson would return to meditate. In spite of a storm of criticism of his work, George received a nod to continue his work. Wilfred Thesiger, author of Arabian Sands and the Marsh Arabs did not particularly like his approach.
An unpaid assistant named Tony Fitzjohn joined the camp in late 1972. Tony was rambunctious but a genius with his hands. He helped maintain the camp and repaired ageing vehicles and provided companionship for George.
He later set up his own camp a few kilometres away at Komunyu Hill to rehabilitate Leopards – Kambi ya Chui. One of his first leopards named Komunyu but nicknamed ‘squeaks’, adapted to the wild. But she continually returned to the camp with one ailment or another requiring medical treatment.
In 1980, a former camp assistant whom she had fired at her Shaba camp murdered Joy. After her cremation, George scattered some of her ashes on Pippa’s grave. The rest he buried with Elsa. At this time sixteen lions lived at the Kora camp. George Adamson thought this indicated the success of his programme.
He was now supplementing their diet with carcasses of camels and goats that he bought from Somali herders. Incidentally, this kept the lions linked to George and the camp. Did he really want them to be completely free? In 1985, George had to employ Terence’s wizardry to locate Glowe, one of the lions. He had gone missing for several days.
Terence was a dowser – he had accurately located many underground water sources. He could find a lost lion by twirling a pendulum over a map. Concentrating on the lion, he would allow the pencil in his left hand to lead itself to the location of the lion on the map. He did this and showed George where Glowe was – 10 KM away!
George Adamson could not really live without his lions. He showed no fear around them, even though they had mauled him thrice over the years. Terence had come near death by a lion attack at Kora.
A high wire mesh fence mainly to protect visitors surrounded the camp. But George would go out of the enclosure through a door to call lions in for feeding. It was not uncommon to find him in his traditional sandals and a pair of shorts. He would hold a goat haunch in his outstretched hand as a 136-KG lion charged at him at full speed. The lion would break at the last possible moment, skidding up to George in a cloud of dust and nip the haunch from his unflinching hand.
That was the faith between man and beast. Besides being tremendously courageous, George was one of those rare individuals who could remain a gentleman under the most extreme provocation. Living in the bush might sound like stress-free living but Kambi ya Simba was sometimes far from that. There was an endless stream of visitors from around the world demanding George’s time.
Filmmakers, writers, publishers, researchers, trustees and friends of the Kora Trust, government officials and various security forces, invading herders, poachers and the ever-present threat of shifta. There was also the occasional strain between the periodic expatriate camp assistants and tourists. George would sit calmly through it all. Puffing on his pipe and after sundown, having a whisky or two and sharing the bottle with whoever was there.
Visitors must have irritated him at times but his innate kindness and unlimited generosity made all feel welcome. He always had time. Time to take people in his old Land Rover down to the Tana River or to some interesting rocks. He never lacked time to tell his magnificent lion stories in the main banda. Sometimes at the table out under the stars. All the while as the moon illumined Kora rock in the distance.
In 1986, things started to go really bad. Tony Fitzjohn received a letter to cease his leopard project from the director of wildlife. His leopard, Komunyu, had attacked a Japanese journalist. Then Terence died peacefully at Kora in April.
George buried him in a lugga not far from Boy’s grave. Somali herders invaded the reserve with their livestock and poachers stepped up their activities. George’s health began to fail, though at 80 he was still extremely alert and still full of life.
From 1987 on he made a few visits to the hospital in Nairobi for stomach problems and his asthma worsened. By nature an active, outdoorsman, he dreaded hospitals and the notion that he might actually die in one. George lived in Kora for almost 19 years. During that time dozens of lions returned to the wild from a wide variety of sources. They in turn produced hundreds of free offspring that otherwise would have grown up in captivity.
What value did it have? George Adamson cared little for anything other than he was making possible a free life for lions. He knew that lions were not endangered, he acknowledged that there was no shortage of wild lions in Kora, and he admitted that there was little scientific value in what he did.
One could make the same answers to the question of slavery, substituting people for lions. To George, it was a moral issue, not a scientific one. George did not disagree with the argument that lions familiar with humans were dangerous. He simply countered that so were wild lions. Even more, he considered man himself a greater threat to humans and other wildlife than lions.
It was human beings annihilating the elephant and rhinos. They were destroying the land. A man killed Joy, his wife. Men finally ended George’s life at the age of 83.
On that fateful day in August, George Adamson rounded a bend in his Land Rover to face the shifta. Inge Ledersteill, the German lady visitor to Kora, later said to the press, “I looked him straight in the eye just as they fired the first shot at him… and I believe he knew exactly what he was doing.”
It was a justly fitting way for George Adamson to leave us, in defiance against everything that he hated. George also left some questions of his own behind. On the last page of My Pride and Joy: “who will now care for the animals in the reserve, 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 in the wind, to plead Kora’s case?”
George Adamson’s may have carried some controversy. Especially on its sustainability. Nevertheless, his efforts to rehabilitate big cats living in captivity became an eye-opener. They shed light on the many possibilities available to conserve these beautiful creatures. Because of him, the lion can still be king of the jungle. For that, we honour him with a place in the Kenya Geographic Hall of Fame.
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