Today 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.
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 issue of wildlife conservation to the world's attention.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 new
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.
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.
Updated: Oct 2008