Amazingly, it is now more than half a century since the publication of “Born Free,” Joy Adamson’s tale of Elsa the lioness and her successful reintroduction to the wild. Although the book swiftly became an international best-seller, it was the subsequent movie, released in 1966, which seized the imagination of the world.
I sometimes think that the modern safari business was invented by Virginia McKenna, whose straw-blond hair seemed to contain the essence of the sun-bleached savanna. Like millions of others, in the darkness of the movie theater I was transfixed by the romance of the Adamsons’ story and by the scale and grandeur of the East African landscape.
“Born Free” undoubtedly provided much of the impetus behind my first visit to Kenya, a trip that began a near-obsession with wild Africa that has endured for more than 30 years. Yet despite the dozens of safaris I have been privileged to undertake, it wasn’t until my recent journey that I saw the actual places where the Adamsons had lived and where much of the movie was filmed.
Elsa’s Kopje sprawls across Mughwango Hill in Meru National Park and overlooks the site of George Adamson’s first camp. On arrival at the lodge, we found the lobby decorated with fine old black-and-white photographs, including one iconic image of George sitting on a rocky pinnacle, rifle in hand, Elsa beside him, man and lioness gazing out across the plains below. For much of Elsa’s story, however, the Adamsons’ camp was nearly an hour’s drive away, at the far southeast of Meru Park, on the banks of the Ura River. It was there that Joy spent her afternoons painting and drawing with Elsa at her side, and that the remarkable intimacy of their relationship developed.
And it was there that Elsa brought her three cubs, offspring of a wild father, to introduce them to her human family, an event that George recorded in his diary as one of the most moving moments of his life. Finally, it was at the Ura River camp that Elsa died from tick fever at the surprisingly young age of 5.
During the course of a morning’s game-viewing at Elsa’s Kopje, our guide, George Kimaru, inquired if we would like to see the place for ourselves and to visit Elsa’s grave. So in midafternoon, we set off in a Land Cruiser on a rutted dirt road that twisted through tangled bush, emerging occasionally onto grasslands dotted with grazing buffalo, zebra and giraffe. Along the way, we saw no one. Eventually, we arrived at a series of rocky outcrops, each maybe 100 feet high, standing close to the tree-lined banks of a muddy river. Taking care to ensure that none of Elsa’s relatives was asleep in the long grass, we strolled over to the grave, a low pile of rocks held together with concrete. On one slab, roughly carved with a chisel, it said simply “ELSA JAN 1956 – JAN 1961.” Next to it was fixed a metal plaque, engraved with six lines of poetry and “JOY ADAMSON (1910-1980).”
It is now well-known that the Adamsons’ life together bore little resemblance to the romantic idyll portrayed by Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers in the movie. The kindest remark about Joy that you can extract from people in Kenya today is that she had “an artistic temperament.” Soon after Elsa’s death, she and George separated, and despite the huge commercial success of the three Elsa books and the movie, George spent much of the remainder of his life in relative poverty, a condition that, remarkably, he didn’t seem to resent. It is possible to feel some sympathy for Joy, however, when you learn that she endured three miscarriages and that her passion for Elsa was clearly a substitute for maternal love for a child. Later on in her life, Joy freely conceded that she had come to prefer animals to people and asked that her ashes be scattered on Elsa’s memorial.
Having sat at the grave for 15 minutes or so, watching a family of hornbills in a nearby tree, we strolled over to the river to try to identify the distinctive boulders that can be seen in Joy’s photographs, and to locate the sandbank on which Elsa spent hours playing with her cubs. The sandbank had been washed away, but one of the rocks looked extremely familiar. On that sunny afternoon, it seemed an ineffably peaceful spot. In Kenya today, it is increasingly hard to find places that have the feeling of true wilderness. But the Ura River campsite felt remote both physically and in time. Just a short walk, or so it seemed, would bring us to a row of safari tents, a smoldering fire, and George’s old Land Rover parked in the shade beneath a tree.
In fact, even in the Adamsons’ day, the campsite wasn’t completely detached from the human world. There were villages just four or five miles away, on the far side of the river. After their mother’s death, Elsa’s cubs began raiding these settlements in search of food, and they had to be relocated to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, both for their own safety and that of the villagers. George continued to reintroduce lions to the wild — beginning with Girl, Boy and Ugas, the feline stars of the movie — but soon he, too, was obliged to move farther away, to Kora National Park, an area then without habitation.
It is now estimated that in the 45 years since “Born Free” was released, Kenya has lost 90 percent of its lion population, which now stands at around 2,000, according to the official statistics of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Throughout Africa, lions are now categorized as “Vulnerable” on the Red List of Threatened Species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Many wildlife experts fear that within 50 years, the lion will be like the tiger, a genetically compromised species, struggling to survive in tiny pockets of protected habitat. Africa’s human population is now more than 1 billion and is growing at 3 percent each year. More people mean more cattle, less prey and ever-smaller wild areas in which lions can roam and hunt. Africa’s wars have flooded the continent with guns and, seemingly, poison is seldom hard to find.
The movie “Born Free” may have filled millions with a longing for Africa — myself included — but before long, it may have acquired an elegiac quality. Alas, in another 50 years, it will likely be a depiction and a celebration of a world that has vanished forever.
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