To wake up at first light, a flea in the prairie of rock and sand each morning, is to realize that one’s own importance is something one highly overrates.’ Gerald Hanley
‘Verily, I say unto you…Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if dies; it bears much fruit.’ – The Bible
February 1956. An ominous dawn spreading across the Northern Province of British-ruled Kenya. Nothing around but MMBA (‘Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa’). Three heavily armed men pick their way through an outcrop of rocks. Their leader is George Adamson, Senior Game Warden of this harsh province that covers no less than 20,000 square miles. With him are Ken - another warden – and an unnamed Game Scout. A Boran tribesman has been killed by a man-eating lion and it’s Adamson’s job to track down the brute and terminate him before he causes any more trouble.
Out of the blue, a snarling lioness challenges the wildlife officials. Ken shoots it in self-defence. It disappears behind the rocks. Ken shoots it again and nearly signs his own death warrant: hell hath no fury like a wounded lion. Ken oscillates from ‘hunter’ to ‘hunted’ and only his companions’ quick action save him. Multiple gunshots later and a scuffle later, the big cat is lying dead on the dewy ground. It is only when Adamson sees the dead lioness’s swollen tits that he realizes why she was so ired by their trespass – she was a mother protecting her cubs. Adamson orders an immediate search for the litter. Three very young cubs, still blind and spotted, are discovered. Postponing his hunt for the man-eater, Adamson takes the cubs home as naked sun begins to scorch the semi-arid thorn bush country.
Enter Joy Adamson. George’s Danish-born wife; painter, book illustrator, write and socialite – a formidable woman. Joy agrees to take care of the spotted fur balls and so begins the most popular story ever told about a lion.
It was a troubled time. World War Two lost and won, Africans began to agitate for independence. A rag-tag army of freedom fighters calling themselves the ‘Mau Mau’ engaged the British Empire in a bitter guerilla war. The British killed over 11,000 of them, breaking their fighting spirit.
Meanwhile, Joy was adjusting to life as the surrogate mother of the cubs, which all turned out to be females. Playing the role “nanny” was the Adamson’s pet, a rock hyrax (looks like a guinea pig) called Pati. By and by, the cubs opened their eyes but couldn’t judge distances and walked like drunken sailors. Joy, 46, put them on unsweetened milk mixed with cod liver oil, glucose, bonemeal and salt. Later, she would wean them on minced meat before they graduated to actual meat.
Distinct features began to show. The biggest cub was named “The Big One”, the second largest was named “Lustica” (“The Jolly One”) and the smallest was named Elsa because she reminded Joy of a friend of hers by that name. In the jungle, where “survival for the fittest” is a way of life not a catchphrase, Elsa would probably have died soon after birth. She, however, compensated for her small size by being the bravest and most spirited.
Elsewhere, political changes were afoot. Black activists lobbied for “uhuru” (“freedom”) and although most settlers agreed that “Primarily, Kenya is an African territory” and “the interests of the African native must be paramount, and that if and when those interests and the interests of the immigrant races should conflict, the former should prevail” (Devenshire Declaration, 1923) the colonial administration begged to differ.
Meanwhile, back at the Adamson’s (and I almost said, “back at the ranch”), the cubs were growing at a premium and had gained celebrity status. Joy said that when she toured with the cubs, “everyone came to see them.’ They were also at ease with people, especially children. They were particularly fond of Joy’s garden boy, Nuru. He was therefore appointed “guardian and lion-keeper in chief”! The previously unheard-of title did wonders for his status but it was no honorary accolade: when the cubs slept out in the open bush, as was their wont, he had to watch over them lest they were molested by snakes or passing baboons. He was, in effect, doing the duty of the cub’s late mother.
Lions being nocturnal, putting the sisters to sleep was a labour fit for Hercules – or a super mom. Joy:
‘Imagine three very naughty little girls, who like all
children hated bedtime, but who could run twice as
fast as those in charge of them and had the added
advantage of being able to see in the dark.’
And although they were playful, they were also exceedingly lazy – not even the tastiest marrow was enough incentive to make them move from a comfortable position.
At three months, their predatory instincts began to take over. With razor-sharp claws, they massacred books and performed autopsies on cushions. Simple games like king-of-the-castle and tug-of-war gave way to the more serious art of the hunt. They would stalk Pati or the Adamsons or each other from behind and once they were within striking distance, they’d unleash a burst of speed and pounce onto the backs of their victim. Lions are heavy and using this method, a single adult lioness can bring down a zebra in minutes (It would take six strong men to do the same.) The Adamson’s didn’t mind being used for target practice but they did mind having their livingroom turned a war zone. Inevitably, the sisters had to start sleeping outside. A wire gate was thrown across the entrance to the verandah to prevent them from sneaking back in.
At five months, and now three times the size of poor Pati, the future of the lions had to be decided. They had also discovered their strength and tested it on everything they could lay their paws on. ‘A ground sheet, however large, HAD to be dragged about,’ Joy reminisced. They also loved to put the fear of God into the Adamsons’ domestic donkeys. Joy decided to send the larger lions to a zoo and remain with Elsa. The house servants also agreed that “If there must be a lion in the household, then let it be as small as possible!”
The day of separation was harrowing. Picture it. Golden sunshine pouring over a dry landscape like honey. A pickup truck loaded with a steel cage sits outside a country home. In the cage are two bewildered baby lions while, on the ground, a third cub stands on the ground calling to its trapped sisters. Joy Adamson comes out of the house carrying a first-aid kit – fully expecting to be scratched on the way to Nairobi - and climbs into the cage. The vehicle peels out of the compound and Elsa chases it down the road until it revs up and disappears, leaving behind a dust trail as long as a comet’s tail. The world’s loneliest lion, Elsa is heartbroken.
Elsa’s sisters were airlifted to the Rotterdam-Blydorp zoo in Holland, which Joy chose for its humane treatment of animals. When she visited them three years later, they “accepted her as a friendly visitor” and allowed to pat them but didn’t seem to recognize her.
A child of two worlds, Elsa now became the world’s most famous lion and the perfect antidote to “the man-eaters of Tsavo” – two unforgiving brutes that had made their awful mark earlier in the century. It was Joy’s opinion that Elsa was ‘born free’ and should remain so. Joy therefore lived and traveled with Elsa rather than send her to a zoo. When Elsa reached sexual maturity, the Adamsons taught her to hunt and kill so that she could return to the jungle. Joy wrote about Elsa’s training in her best-selling book, ‘Born Free’ which was turned into a movie. You can imagine Joy’s surprise when Elsa brought her cubs back to the only family she had ever known – the Adamsons. Joy talked about her experiences with Elsa and her cubs in the in two more books, ‘Living Free’ and ‘Forever Free.’ The books became bestsellers and by now Elsa was a megastar. From the bestsellers, Joy received not a dime – each penny went to wildlife conservation.
December, 1963. The British Empire officially hands over the country to its original owners. Former freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta, a man of many parts, becomes Kenya’s first president.
Ernest Hemingway said that ‘all stories, if carried far enough, end in death and he is no true storyteller who would hide this fact from you.’ You will therefore permit me to carry this story to its bitter end lest I fall short among my fellow storytellers.
Elsa got sick and died at a relatively young age. The area around the Adamsons’ house is now called Elsamere and is a tourist attraction.
George Adamson died violently but he was not mauled by lions. He was killed by a much more dangerous and advanced predator: man. One day, elephant poachers turned up at the Kora Camp where he was then stationed and gunned him to death. After Adamson’s death, a poem penned by an admirer appeared in a local daily. It read (in part):
‘Adamson lived and died bravely
His joy diminishing each day
Yet for the love of wild game
Which brought Kenya great fame
Adamson remained chained to the Kora Camp,
Working like a diligent tramp…
Elephants trumpet in sadness and sorrow
Kora Camp will miss Adamson forever.
We, too, will miss Adamson forever,
The wildlife will face a hard life
Adamson is no more.’
Indeed Adamson, who rarely wore a shirt, was missed by man and beast alike; his official duties included enforcing Game Laws, preventing poaching and dealing with dangerous animals molesting local tribes. What an extraordinary man! A mysterious nature lover who literally walked wit lions and yet was humble to fault. It is no exaggeration to describe him as an honorary Africa deserving of every major conservation price. Remove ‘honorary.’
Joy Adamson, who everyone predicted would one day be killed by the many animals she interacted with, was also shot dead but there’s more to that story. The young man who shot her (a former servant) argued, in court, that she was hunting him down with a gun, ready to shoot him for some misdemeanour. In self-defence, he shot her using one of pistols Joy had given the servant to guard themselves against wildlife. He further argued that she was in the habit of shooting at her servant during fits of anger. (Her friends confirmed that she had a rotten temper but didn’t believe that she’d shoot a person.) Joy’s private life appears to have been volatile. Her marriage to George was her third one and it still ended in divorce. She is best remembered for pioneering ‘ecotourism’. There is now an ‘Elsa Trust’ that continues her conservation work. She was also a talented painter and illustrator of books on African plants and shrubs. Her paintings of African tribespeople still hang on the walls of the National Museum, as accurate as photographs. She died in 1980, aged 70.Her murderer is still behind bars.
It has been observed that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if dies, it bears much fruit. The death of Elsa’s brave mother may have been tragic but it was no waste. Through it, the cubs came into the spotlight, changing people’s perceptions of lions and raising funds for ‘ecotourism’. Thanks to Joy and Elsa, zoos around the world started treating big cats more humanely – giving them more plaything, more room and so forth.
George, “the lion man of Africa”, was another grain of wheat. Far from easing poaching, his death only served to intensify anti-poaching efforts. In 1988, then President Daniel arap Moi set fire to ivory tasks worth $3 million, leaving no doubt where the country stood on the issue of killing elephants. His murderers were never caught.
Finally, I realize that there is a lot of death in this short history. But you have to understand that in this savage paradise called Africa, death is a part of life and one’s own importance is something one highly overrates.
(c) Alex N Nderitu
Buy Alexander Nderitu's prose and poetry books at: