George Adamson, who became known as “Baba ya Simba,” or Father of Lions, was born on February 3, 1906 (died 1989). His work reintroducing lions into the wilds of Kenya was immortalized in the book, Born Free, written by his wife, Joy Adamson. Born Free chronicles the life of Elsa, a lion cub raised by the Adamsons and then later trained to be wild.
Adamson was born in India, of English and Irish parents. He moved to Kenya as a young man to work on his father’s coffee plantation. But he was an adventurer, not a farmer. He took turns as a prospector, road builder, goat trader and professional safari guiding. He eventually took a position as an assistant game warden with the Kenya Game Department—and found his calling. Soon after, he married Joy, creating the partnership that would make both famous.
In 1953, he was forced to shoot a charging lioness with three cubs. Two cubs were sent off to zoos, but the Adamsons kept the third, a female they named Elsa. After raising Elsa as a pet for three years, George began the process of teaching Elsa to hunt and return to an independent life as a wild lion. The project was successful, and the story of Elsa’s life was told in the book, Born Free, which has sold more than 5 million copies, and again in a feature motion picture of the same name.
Adamson retired from the Kenya Game Department in 1961 to devote himself full-time to raising orphaned lions and returning them to the wild. Although not a trained scientist, Adamson gained great respect for his intimate knowledge of lion behavior. He learned that individual lions had personalities and behavior that was unique to each and not just a product of their genetics. As he wrote, “Like people, they can look impressive, beautiful, curious, ugly or plain. The best are adventurous, loyal and brave.”
Adamson, too, was adventurous and brave. With a shaggy main of blond hair and a tanned and rugged complexion, he was the epitome of a real-life Tarzan. He lived without most conveniences, and always slept in the open. He loved Kenya for its wildness: “Promises of solitude, of wild animals in a profusion to delight the heart of Noah, and of the spice of danger, were always honored.”
Adamson’s work, however, was sometimes unsuccessful. A trained lion, Boy, who appeared in the movie and was then reintroduced into the wild, mauled a child and killed Adamson’s assistant. Adamson reluctantly shot him. After Adamson’s brother, Terrence, was mauled by another lion, the Kenya government rescinded his permission to train and release lions. Eight years later, the government restored his program.
The Adamsons’ lives ended in personal tragedy. The couple separated in 1977, after 33 years of marriage. Three years later, Joy Adamson was murdered by one of her staff. Then, in 1989, George Adamson was also murdered, presumably by Somali poachers.
Father of Lions. George Adamson: Lion’s Best Friend. Available at: http://www.fatheroflions.org/GeorgeAdamson_Information.html. Accessed February 2, 2017.
PBS. 2012. Adamson Timeline. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/elsas-legacy-the-born-free-story-adamson-timeline/6147/. Accessed February 2, 2017.
Perlez, Jane. 1989. George Adamson, Lions’ Protector, Is Shot Dead by Bandits in Kenya. New York Times obituary, August 22, 1989. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/22/world/george-adamson-lions-protector-is-shot-dead-by-bandits-in-kenya.html. Accessed February 2, 2017.