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BORN FREE - Joy Adamson

Elsa and her cubToday the release of animals born and/or raised in captivity (zoos or reserves) back into the wild (often called restocking) is becoming a common practice. When Joy and George Adamson did it back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, it was a pioneering effort.

The success of their book "Born Free", further books and subsequent film, helped to fund the creation of Kenya's first wildlife reserves and bring the conservation issue to the world's attention.

Joy Adamson was born on January 20, 1910 (Friederike Victoria Gessner) in Troppau, Austrian Silesia (now Opava in Czechia). She spent her childhood in the manor of Seifenmühle (belonging to her mother's relatives). Though she enjoyed playing lion-hunt with other children, swimming and tennis, she preferred to take long walks with the local forester and hear his talks about wild animals.

Joy with Elsa As a young woman with many and varied interests, she lived in Vienna with her grandmother. She took singing lessons, learned to play piano, studied fine arts (in particular sculpture and metal-work), learned restoration, typing, short-hand, photography and equestrian skills. Later psychoanalysis caught her interest (very fashionable in Vienna at that time), leading to an unrealised desire to study medicine at university.

In 1935 she married the successful businessman and amateur ornithologist, Victor von Klarwill. Intending to settle in Kenya to escape the threatened occupation of Austria, they arrived in Africa to "acclimatize" on May 13, 1937.

During the voyage Friederike Victoria met the Swiss botanist Peter Bally who soon became her second husband. It was he who first gave her the name "Joy". In March 1938 after Peter Bally received a post in the Nairobi Museum, Joy Bally moved to Kenya permanently. Joy assisted her husband by painting the plants he collected, eventually illustrating seven books relating to East African flora. In 1947 the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain awarded her the Grenfell Gold Medal for her work.

Joy participated in excavations in Rift Valley (Kenya) and in Ngorongoro Crater (Tanganyika, now Tanzania) with the world-famous archaeologists and anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey.

In 1944 Joy married George Adamson and while travelling in Africa she prepared herbariums and collected specimens (insects and rodents) for various institutes and museums.

Near the end of the 1940s Joy Adamson began painting the natives of Kenya, portraying them in their traditional clothing and ornaments in order to document and perpetuate their disappearing customs. In six years of travel through the remote regions of Kenya she painted representatives of 54 main tribes (700 pictures). Her paintings can be seen in the Nairobi National Museum and in a few local administrative centres.

George Adamson was born in Etawah, India, in 1906, to an English mother and an Irish father who helped to train an army for the Rajah of Dholpur. As a youth George Adamson attended a boarding school in England. He enjoyed hiking in Scotland with his younger brother Terence and dreamed of big game hunting in Africa.

He came to Kenya (1924) at the age of 18 to work on his father's coffee plantation. Working from dawn to dusk on the plantation did not appeal to him and in the following years he tried various schemes and briefly held many diverse jobs.
In 1938, at age 32, he joined Kenya's Game Department as a warden and found an occupation that suited him. Four years later he met and married Joy Bally (as soon as she could divorce her wealthy botanist husband).

In early1956, George Adamson was sent to track down a man-eating lion that had been terrorizing several villages. He and his hunting party startled a lioness and her cubs in the deep bush. When the lioness charged he had no choice but to shoot. February 1st, 1956, was the day he brought the lion cubs home to Joy, two of which were later sent to a Dutch zoo. The Adamsons kept and reared the smallest cub, which they named Elsa.


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Thus began the events, which would prove pivotal not only for the life of the Adamsons but for the very foundation of modern conservation. After Elsa had grown to about 3 years old, the Adamsons decided to re-integrate her back into the wild, rather than send her to a zoo. This had never before been attempted. Elsa was patiently taken back into the bush and encouraged to develop her instincts to hunt and survive in the wild.

George Adamson retired from his position of Senior Game Warden (Meru National Park) in April 1961, to devote himself to working with lions. To share their experiences and stimulate interest in wild animals the Adamsons wrote the book "Born Free", about their experiences with Elsa. After release it rapidly became a best-seller.

It was to be the first of a trilogy, Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds (1960), Living Free: The Story of Elsa and Her Cubs (1961), and Forever Free: Elsa's Pride (1962). With the 1964 release of a movie (starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna) based on the first book, the Adamsons achieved celebrity status. Though Joy revelled in the attention, George was uninterested.

George Adamson had served as an animal trainer on the Born Free set in Kenya. After filming, he took charge of three of the film's lions and returned to Meru with Joy, where they continued educating lions for life in the wild. At this time Joy was also raising a cheetah and since lions are inclined to attack other cats in their territory, the Adamsons set up two separate camps 20 kilometres apart to continue their work. Joy Adamson also experimented with a leopard, and over time, proved that with skilful and considered action, many animals raised by humans may be effectively re-integrated into the wild.

Five years later, now with seven lions and numerous incidents behind him, George Adamson was finally expelled from the reserve after one of his favourite lions (Boy), mauled the son of a warden. The only place where the government would allow him to continue his wildlife rehabilitation program was in Kora, an isolated and almost uninhabited region of desert 402 kilometres north of Nairobi. At Kora George Adamson rented an area of 1,300 sq. km. where he, his younger brother Terence (1907–1986) and native assistants were to live and work.

In 1970, long standing tensions between George and Joy Adamson that were already straining the relationship peaked when Joy declared that she hated the intense heat and isolation of Kora, and refused to go. The couple separated but decided to continue spending Christmas together.

With the success of Born Free and later related books, Joy Adamson became active in promoting wildlife conservation. Touring around the world, she showed her films, paintings and organized Elsa Clubs and Funds, gaining a reputation as an excellent lecturer. She received numerous awards in many countries and in 1977 was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for her scientific and cultural work.

Joy Adamson had never shared the Born Free royalties with her husband (the greater part of which had gone to conservation projects), even though (as George's friends later insisted), the book was based on his diaries. But George Adamson never complained and only spoke fondly of his wife, even though there were times at Kora when he and his unpaid assistant Tony Fitzjohn, were so poor that they survived on camel meat and tinned army rations.

On January 3rd, 1980 the 69 year old Joy Adamson (who is documented as having had a greater affinity with animals than with people) was murdered on a road near her camp in the Shaba Nature Preserve, where she had lived for 3 years.

Later at his wife's funeral, George Adamson promised to carry on her work. According to her wishes, her cremated remains were scattered by George on the graves of the cheetah Pippa and the lioness Elsa. A year later, a 23 year old former employee Paul Ekai was convicted of the murder, apparently committed after a dispute over money.

Later in 1980, a lion mauled Terence Adamson. This prompted the Kenyan government to shut down George Adamson's controversial re-integration program, which even some conservationists had labelled as irrelevant.

After being sent a pair of leopard cubs, and later another pair, in 1981 the Kenyan government allowed George Adamson to established a camp, where his assistant Tony Fitzjohn started working with leopards.

In the years that followed, poaching increased dramatically and threats of reprisal attacks by poachers were common. The elephants were nearly all gone and the lions had been killed or driven away, even Tony Fitzjohn's favourite leopard was poisoned. Poaching was endemic, a sad situation that now existed throughout most of Africa.

At age 83 George Adamson was still considered to be hardy and in fine form, despite suffering from asthma and sleeping with an oxygen tank near at hand. On August 20, 1989 at Kampi Ya Simba (camp of the lions) in Kora, George Adamson and two of his assistants were killed by Somali poachers when they intervened on behalf of a group of German tourists.

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Even with the offers and opportunities that came with fame, Joy and George Adamson chose to remain in the wilds of Kenya. They continued to care for and study the animals that had become their life's work, living in this harsh and isolated environment amidst wild and untamed predatory cats. Their unfortunate deaths at the hands of humans, motivated by simple greed, makes for an ironic contrast


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