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Monday, October 10, 2005

Animals Start Returning to Born Free Nature Reserve in Kenya as Poachers and Bandits Are Driven Out


It was way back in 1966 with the release of the captivating movie Born Free that the world first became acquainted with Elsa the lioness. Set in Kenya's Meru National Park, the film told the bittersweet story of wildlife conservationists and lion-lovers George and Joy Adamson (See real-life photos below) and their adoption and rearing of Elsa. They adopted her and her sisters, the Big One and Lustica, when they were only two to three days old after George, acting in his capacity as a game warden, had killed their mother who was suspected of mauling to death a local resident. The Big One and Lustica were soon sent to the Diergaarde Blijdorp in Rotterdam but the Adamsons decided to keep Elsa. When Joy visited Elsa's siblings three years later at the zoo they were friendly toward her but apparently did not remember her.

Things turned out quite differently with Elsa and the Adamsons. A bond quickly developed between the Austrian-born Joy and the Indian-born George and the young lioness. She lived with them in their compound, slept in her own bed, went on safari with them, and even rode atop their ATV. In many respects, Elsa became an overgrown version of a loving and playful domestic cat. All good things must end sometime and as George's job brought him into more and more conflicts with local poachers, he and Joy were ordered out of Meru by Kenyan officials. Since they could not take a lioness with them this necessitated that they reintroduce Elsa into the wild.

Based on Joy's 1960 book of the same title, Born Free is essentially the story of the Adamsons' attempts to teach Elsa how to hunt and to live on her own. More than that it is also a story about loving and letting go which tugs at the heartstrings. The movie, which won two Academy Awards, ends when the Adamsons return to the bush sometime later and discover that Elsa has adjusted fairly well to life in the wild and now has a family of her own.

The movie's heartrending story, exotic setting, and beautiful cinematography, were made all the more appealing by Matt Munro's powerful rendition of Don Black's exhilarating lyrics contained in the movie's eponymous theme song:
Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart


Live free and beauty surrounds you
The world still astounds you
Each time you look at a star


Stay free, where no walls divide you
You're free as the roaring tide
So there's no need to hide


Born free, and life is worth living
But only worth living
'cause you're born free


By the time the 1980s and 1990s had rolled around Meru had been taken over by Somali poachers and bandits who quickly decimated its population of elephants and rhinoceroses in order to peddle their valuable tusks and horns to Asian and Middle Eastern clients. For instance, rhino horns, long used as an aphrodisiac by Chinese herbalists, fetch up to $30,000 per pound and ivory is still the material of choice for some makers of piano keys, billiard balls, buttons, and other assorted ornamental items. The slaughter was so massive that all but one of Meru's three-hundred rhinos had been killed by as early as 1989 and the number of elephants had plummeted from 3,500 to 700. Ironically, the only animals to flourish during this time were the Adamsons' beloved lions who boned up on the carcasses left behind by the killers.

According to London's Independent, things are now beginning to look up for Meru and the animals are starting to return. Thanks to a $1.25 million grant from the International Fund for Animal Welfare designed to upgrade security and to rebuild roads and wardens' offices, rhinos, elephants, impalas, and zebra can once again be found in Meru. Some of them have returned on their own whereas others have been brought in from other game reserves in Africa. Meru is still not out of the woods just yet, however. Wardens still have to contend with poachers armed with AK-47s and the opposition of local villagers who do not want the elephants back because of the damage that they inflict upon their crops of maize, papaya, sugar cane, and bananas. Kenyan Wildlife Services is building fences around farmland but at $2,000 per kilometer this is proving to be an expensive and tedious process. Villagers on the prowl for bushmeat either to eat or to sell is another area of concern which continues to undermine conservation efforts. There is also a lack of accommodations in and around Meru. Most of the lodges either closed or were destroyed by the violence which has engulfed the park over the past thirty years. Improving security and rebuilding the lodges are necessary prerequisites before the tourists will return.

Born Free may have had a happy ending, but in real life there was not any happy ending for the Adamsons. Joy was shot to death by a disgruntled employee in Meru in 1980 and nine years later George was murdered by Somali bandits at nearby Kora. Work is underway to rebuild George's last base at Kora and to restore his and his assistants' vandalized tombstones. Born Free and Joy's sequels to it, Living Free and Forever Free are still available at online bookstores as is the movie itself and its 1972 sequel, Living Free. Bill Travers, who played George in the movie, died in 1994 but the actress who doubled as his wife in both the movie and in real life, Virginia McKenna, is still alive and in 2004 she received an O. B. E. from Queen Elizabeth II for her service to wildlife and the arts. Back in 1984, she and Bill established the Born Free Foundation which with its motto of "Keep Wildlife in the Wild" is dedicated to protecting endangered species and ending cruelty to animals. In addition to lions, it advocates on behalf of, inter alia, polar bears, dolphins, apes, elephants, and circus animals.

Sadly, like her human friends, Elsa also had a short and tragic life. She contracted babesia, a blood disease spread by ticks, and died on January 24, 1961, long before the world ever had the opportunity to get to know her. At the time of her death she was only four years old. Following her premature death, the Adamsons took her three cubs, Jespah, Gopa, and Little Elsa to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania where, hopefully, their offsprings still roam the jungle today. Later in 1963, they founded the Elsa Conservation Trust which still bears her name today. Thanks to the advance of technology, the beloved lioness also lives on in cyberspace at www.elsa.co.uk.

Photos: Born Free video and Joy Adamson's novel, Born Free.