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It is 25 years since lions roamed in the Kora National Reserve where legendary conservationist George Adamson set up a camp to rescue lions and release them back into the wild. The heartbreaking but successful story of rescuing orphaned cub Elsa became internationally famous in the blockbuster film Born Free, based on the iconic book written by George’s wife Joy.
Tony Fitzjohn worked closely with George, and continues to work in wildlife conservation. He has lovingly rebuilt George’s original camp, Kampi Ya Simba, in the Kora National Reserve, abandoned after he was murdered by Somali bandits in 1989. Tony picks up where he and George left off all those years ago, with the aim of releasing captive and orphaned lions back into the wild with the support of the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Martin Clunes has had a close friendship with Tony since they met 20 years ago when they released Nina, a zoo elephant, back into the wild. In this documentary Martin travels to Kenya to visit Tony and to meet his first lion cub to be brought to the Kora camp for 25 years.
Mugie, an orphaned lion cub was found when he was just three weeks old, washed up on a river bank after a flash flood. Martin and Tony travel 140 miles from Kora to Ol Jogi, a 60,000 acre private game sanctuary for some of East Africa’s most endangered wildlife to collect Mugie. Thanks to an electric fence, the reserve is protected against poaching, allowing the wildlife to flourish. Jamie Gaymer, the reserve’s wildlife and security manager, has been looking after the cub he named Mugie after the place he was found, and contacted Tony to ask if he could take him.
Martin says: “Although elephants and rhinos get most of the publicity, lions in Africa are facing an equally serious crisis. While there are about 500,000, elephants, left on the continent, there are only 30,000 lions. If something isn’t done, they could die out in the wild in less than ten years.
“Three years ago a mission began to bring lions back to a remote Kenyan wilderness. From day one I have had the privilege of being a witness to this story. It’s one that stirred deep childhood memories, brought great highs and awful lows. This is the true story of one animal’s big adventure, and one man’s dream.”
Tony Fitzjohn says: “In the 24 years I’ve been away, lions themselves are becoming an endangered species and it’s only in the centre of some very well protected areas or national parks you still get lions. But to be able to do something for lions again, in my world, if there’s a gap or an offer to do something, you just go for it. You can’t say no.”
Virginia McKenna, who starred as Joy Adamson, in Born Free, joins Martin in Kenya to re-visit the spot in Meru National Park where Elsa the famous lioness was released.
Virginia says: “What this story tells you is that relationships between humans and wild animals can surmount all the sort of prejudices and fears and everything, and lift you out of yourself really; it is a spiritual thing. When you think they devoted all these years and that relationship was extraordinary and unique, I don’t think there’s ever been quite such a relationship as that and finally of course Elsa mated with a wild lion and then brought her children back.”
Martin and Tony go to the Tana River, where Tony used to go with George Adamson, and was the scene in the famous You Tube clip of the release into the wild of Christian, Tony’s first lion.
In the Sixties when it was fashionable in London to own an exotic pet, Christian had been bought in Harrods and raised on the King’s Road. Bill Travers, who starred with his wife Virginia McKenna in Born Free, arranged for Christian to be transported to George and Tony to be released eventually into the wild. Bill and Virginia set up the Born Free Foundation which promotes animal welfare around the world.
In the film Tony talks candidly to Martin about the horrific death of George Adamson, and of his guilt that the murder happened when he was away in Tanzania.
“I felt so guilty when George was killed. I knew it was going to happen and then when he was killed I was just full of massive guilt and sadness and everything else. That was my job; to stop it happening.Getting clobbered.”
Martin joins Tony at George’s graveside as he makes a touching tribute to his mentor.