George Adamson’s indomitable lion spirit lives, 25 years later

This weekend the world marks the 25th anniversary of the death of legendary George Adamson, whose work with lions - alongside his wife Joy Adamson - made the couple ‘immortal' in the world of conservation.

For several years now George Adamson's legion of fans have celebrated his life and accomplishments by doing pilgrimage to Kora National Park in Tana River County, where George and Joy's camp was located back then.

Like the Biblical grain of wheat, which must die to bring forth new and better life, George Adamson's horrific death inspired a legion of conservationists the world over.

Indeed, he was the poster child of Kenya's conservation prowess for decades and put the country on the world map. His image as a sun-gnarled figure with mane of yellow white hair usually dressed in shorts and sandals with the signature smoking pipe and whisky remains immortalized.

The conservation icon and his wife, Austrian-born artist Joy Adamson, are best known through their gripping movie Born Free (1966) and best-selling book under the same title. The movie is based on the true story of Elsa the Lioness, an orphaned cub they had raised in Kora and later released it into the wild but remained in a friendly relationship with them.

Several other films have been made based on George Adamson's eventful life such as The Lions Are Free (1967), An Elephant Called Slowly (1969), Living Free (1972), Christian the Lion (1972) and To Walk With Lions (1999). 

To carry on his legacy, Kenya Wildlife Service is working with neighbouring county governments and other stakeholders to create a lion sanctuary in Kora, the area he immortalised through his adventures with indomitable lions. 
Dubbed the ‘last wilderness', Kora is the third largest park in Kenya after Tsavo East and Tsavo West. It has bragging rights as the least- visited, utterly unspoilt and the most geographically diverse park in Kenya. The park was gazzetted in 1989 and covers an area of 1, 787 sq km. 
Its key attractions include pristine wilderness, inselbergs, River Tana, Adamson Falls, George Adamson grave side, George Adamson Bridge- famously Known as Kora Bridge, Kora Rapids and diverse wildlife and birds. For the adventurous, the places to stay in the park include Kampi ya Simba and Kora picnic site.

Visitors to the park have various activities at their disposal including camping, birding, star gazing, rock climbing- Kora Rock and guided bush and walking safaris. 
George Adamson was murdered by people who were reportedly unhappy with the success of his conservation efforts and his strange antics of domesticating and living with the dreaded king of the jungle.

So, what is the significance of George Adamson's life and times for the modern generation, a quarter a century after his death?

Though he was admired by so many people all over the world, not many have visited where he used to work, to see how he used to live, and where he was buried.  That is why the anniversary is being marked in the very area he lived.

The commemoration to be held at Adamson's grave aims at celebrating his conservation efforts and devising ways of getting the new generation of conservationists to carry on with his legacy.
Participants at the anniversary will camp at Adamson's Camp and Tana River Campsite for the three days where they will watch his films, visit cultural manyattas and a gallery exhibition. They will also visit Kora Rapids and Kora Rock before participating in a cultural festival in his honour. Lastly, prayers will be made by his graveside.

The significance of George Adamson's life lies in the fact that his legacy seems to be on a shaky ground given that conservationists have warned that lions may become extinct in Kenya within the next 20 years unless urgent action is taken to save them.

Kenya has been losing an average of 100 of its 2,000 lions every year due to poisoning, growing human settlements, increasing farming, climate change and disease. Yet lions have a special place in Kenyans' livelihood and conservation efforts. Other than being the symbol for national strength and role in the ecosystem, they are among the Big Five, a major attraction for visitors to Kenya. Today, we see lions on national coats of arms and emblems, company logos, clothing brands and family crests - even the ignoble ones. If there is one creature we aspire to, it is the lion, king of all creatures.
There were 2,749 lions in Kenya in 2002 and their population dropped to 2,280 by 2004 and to roughly 2,000 today, according to Kenya Wildlife Service records.

The trend of lion population decline is disturbing and every effort needs to be made to ensure that Kenya either stabilises its population at the current population or increases the numbers to an ecologically acceptable level.

It's ironical that the renowned British wildlife conservationist put Kenya on the global wildlife conservation map through lions yet they now risk extinction.

George Adamson was shot dead by Shifta bandits on August 20, 1989, at the age of 83. The late conservationist, then popularly known as the father of lions in Africa, is best remembered for keeping and nurturing a pack of domesticated lions.  George Adamson, whose shoulder-length hair and goatee gave him a lion-like appearance, kept a modest bush camp in Kora and lived off a pension, interest from a trust fund set up by his wife and donations from supporters.

The professional big game hunter -turned-warden, first visited Kenya in 1924 and embarked on a series of fascinating adventures that ended when he was shot dead by bandits. Shortly after his death, the government gazetted Kora as a national park in honour of his work.

‘Mr Lion Man' gained world fame and affection for rehabilitating captive or orphaned big cats for eventual reintroduction into the wild. He believed that lions had a sixth sense and was convinced that a scientific explanation would one day be found about the mysterious, apparently telepathic communication skills of lions - particularly between lions and human beings.

He must be among the few people in the world with the honour of being buried in a protected area. The burial site makes him lie in the league of American millionaire Sir Northrup Macmillan, who was buried near the peak of Kilimambogo in Ol Donyo Sabuk National Park, a few kilometers from Thika Town towards Garissa.

Long live George Adamson, ‘the Lion Man of Africa'.  The world is a better place because of you. 

Author: Paul Udoto 
The writer is the Kenya Wildife Service Corporate Communications Manager
communications@kws.go.ke

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