Two Decades After Born Free, George Adamson, the Surviving Human Friend of the Lioness Elsa, Thrives in the Wild

updated 11/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

George Adamson felt like a trapped animal. Over a period of 44 harsh years of devoted work in Kenya—in the days long before words like ecology and environmentalism became fashionable—Adamson and his wife, Joy, had successfully retrieved lost lion cubs and trained them to survive in the wild. In their unassuming, unspectacular way, the Adamsons became famous for their pioneering work. But now, Joy was a celebrity. In 1960 she had written a best-seller, Born Free, chronicling the remarkable story of their life with the lions. A movie and a TV series followed; there was even a pop song called Born Free. But Adamson didn't like the spotlight. It was the old story, more familiar to the Hollywood scene than to primitive, hardscrabble life. "All that Born Free business got to be too much for me," says Adamson, now a grizzled 76. "Joy liked the high society that the movie brought on, but I couldn't stand it. So in 1972," he says, "I just took my lions and moved. It was the best thing I ever did."

Adamson set up his own camp in the bush a hard day's drive away. There he established Kenya's Kora Reserve, a 197-square-mile area that is one of the world's most remote wild-animal sanctuaries, and continued the work that he and Joy began. Now, at last, he is getting recognition for his efforts.

The story of his wilderness travail rivals that of Elsa, the lioness heroine of Born Free. Soon after Adamson moved to Kora, his African assistant was mauled to death by "Boy," a lion used in the Born Free movie and later set loose. (Adamson had to shoot the animal.) Other newly-freed lions also attacked Adamson's brother Terence, now 75, and Adamson's 38-year-old assistant, Tony Fitzjohn.

Fearing that news of this kind would hurt tourism, the Kenyan government cut off Adamson's road-building funds, and his private donations dried up as well. For two years Adamson, who was born in India and had moved to Africa when he was 18, was forced to subsist mostly on old British army rations. His $200-a-month pension from Kenya's Northern Frontier District, where he had been a game warden for 23 years, scarcely paid for gas and upkeep on his ancient Land-Rover. Recalls Adamson, "I felt like the world had ended."

Worse still, during a severe drought in 1979, Somali herdsmen invaded the protected Kora in search of pasture for their cattle. Predictably, wild lions attacked the herds and the Somalis in turn killed a number of the big cats. When Adamson tried to stop the slaughter, the tribesmen threatened him, and he was forced to live like one of the hunted animals he had devoted his years to protecting. He dug foxholes on the edge of the camp and slept with a pistol at his side.

Then, the next year, came the startling news: Joy Adamson, 69, had been killed while walking near her camp at the Shaba Game Reserve in central Kenya. At first it was thought that she had been mauled by a lion. Later a judge concluded that she had been murdered by a dismissed employee. Though the Adamsons had not lived together for 10 years, they had remained close, visiting each other and discussing their work. (Explaining their breakup, Adamson once said facetiously, "There are two things in life I cannot do without: one is whiskey and the other is Worcestershire sauce. Joy is neither.") Joy's death was a terrible blow. "I couldn't believe it," recalls Adamson. "We still loved each other very much. She was so much a part of my life."

The tragedy seemed to make Adamson all the more fanatic about preserving the wild animals of Kora. To raise money, he and Fitzjohn appealed to wealthy animal lovers in Britain. In addition, Houston oil millionaire John Mecom Jr. sponsored a PBS documentary about Kora earlier this year and then donated $10,000 to the reserve. After Joy's death, the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal, a worldwide conservation program she had established, gave Adamson a regular stipend; until that time, he had never benefited from his wife's Born Free income.

Now, after a half century of working only with lions, Adamson is trying to preserve the leopard population. Teaching stray cubs to hunt, feeding them from his hand, and then watching them mate and give birth, Adamson acts more like a godfather than a trainer. He wants to expand his wildlife family by adopting more leopards and, perhaps, black rhinos. "My dream," he says, "is to see Kora like it was when I was a young man, before the poachers came. Lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos—they all lived here, and I hope to see them here again. Kora is one of the wildest places left in Africa. Before I die, I want to see it thriving."

From Our Partners