Guardian of the Lions

Long after `Born Free' days, George Adamson still champions the cause of Africa's cubs. INTERVIEW

SOME people say George Adamson looks a bit like a lion with his flowing gold-white mane and his whiskerlike goatee and mustache. And tonight, bare-chested as usual, wearing his baggy shorts and sandals, he even sounds like one as he calls two lions by name, using a megaphone that amplifies his voice into a roar.

``Come on, Growe. Come on, Dennis. Come on!''

Out there in the night, perhaps a mile or more away from his camp, the evening silence is broken by the answering roar of lions.

Nearly 25 years after the world-popular film ``Born Free'' - the story of Elsa the lioness, raised by George and Joy Adamson - Mr. Adamson is still setting captive and orphaned lions free in this remote part of northern Kenya.

``I get a lot of satisfaction out of that, because you put them back in the life for which they were created, instead of stuck behind bars and gaped at by people,'' he said in an interview.

Adamson has proved that even a lion whose family for four generations has been in zoos or a circus can be introduced successfully to the wilds. And he has shown that lions and man can establish a relationship, as he says, of ``mutual friendship and trust.''

Altogther, since he and his wife released Elsa, Adamson has set free about 30 lions. ``But that doesn't count the off-spring,'' he says. ``If you included all the off-spring, you'd run into a hundred or more.''

He's far from finished, too, he says. Now he would like to start reintroducing rhinos to the area, if adequate anti-poaching protections become available.

Visitors to his Kampi ya Simba (Swahili for ``Lion Camp'') call him George - not Mr. Adamson. That's not for lack of respect, but out of respect for the modest, unpretentious nature of the man made famous through the film, a song, and Joy's book all titled ``Born Free'' and later by George's own two books: ``Bwana Game,'' and ``My Pride and Joy.'' Joy died tragically nine years ago, murdered by a Kenyan employee she had fired.

George's camp is modest: a mere dozen structures, including huts for the Kenyan staff and himself. His one-room home has a palm-frond roof, walls of stick, chicken wire, and cloth, and a sand floor. He enjoys feeding the vulturine guinea fowl, doves, hornbills, monkeys, and a squirrel that come to the camp. After his evening meal by lamp light, he retires to his hut to type out diary entries and other records, using his slow, one-finger method.

Around the compound is a 10-foot fence to keep the lions out. When he first came here from another part of Kenya 18 years ago, he didn't build a fence right away. So some of the lions he had freed came right back into camp.

``One of the lions, Christian, used to hop on my bed,'' George recalls. ``And he was a bit too big for comfort, and I used to have to throw him out.''

But tonight I am glad for the fence. Earlier in the evening, seven lionesses, six puppy-sized cubs, and a male, Dennis, gathered just outside the fence. Several times some of the lions, including Growe, came right up to the fence, only a few feet from us.

George often feeds the mother lions when they have cubs, as two of them do now. Illegal overgrazing in the Kora Game Reserve has stripped the area of much of the grass that sustains the small animals, which, in turn, are the prey of the lions. Some conservationists privately criticize George's lion feeding, saying that it makes lions less cautious around people. George disagrees.

``It's a question of these cubs. If I didn't feed them, probably half of them wouldn't survive.... I'd like these cubs to grow up and eventually form their own prides.

``In the 18 years that I've been here, there has been one fatality and about three maulings. During the same period, no one knows how many people have been killed in the rest of the country by lions, and mauled by lions. I think it would be quite a large number.''

British, born in India where his father was working, Adamson came to Kenya in 1924. Before becoming a game warden, he was a professional hunter of lions and other animals. But in the mid-1930s, while leading a photographic safari in Kenya, something happened that nudged him away from killing lions.

``I remember one evening passing a rock and a lioness was sitting on it. I thought to myself: `Probably on the self-same rock there had been lions sitting for hundreds and hundreds of years, maybe long before mankind could walk on two legs.' And then I thought about the people who go hunting and they see a lionness on a rock. They would probably shoot it. To what purpose? Isn't it far better to see that lion on the rock rather than killing it and sticking it on the wall in some dwelling?''

He has had several close calls with lions in the wild. In 1939, as a game warden, he was hunting for a man-eater that had killed a number of people. Seeing it, he fired, but only wounded it. The lion ran toward him, and his rifle jammed.

``So there was nothing else I could do except when she got to me to ram the muzzle of the rifle into her mouth. I did that, and she bit it, and tore it out of my hand and then grabbed me by the forearm and knocked me over backwards. I got up immediately and tried to pull out this sheath knife. But I couldn't because my arm was numb. Then she came for me again, caught me by the left thigh, and knocked me over again.''

But at that point, the lion went away. He got his gun working again and fired several shots in the air. Help soon arrived.

Most of his work with lions has been peaceful, however. Game wardens and others in Kenya have sent him lion cubs over the years whose mothers were shot for attacking cattle, often in areas outside of game parks. Others were sent from zoos, including some lions used in the film ``Born Free,'' which he later set free.

Well beyond retirement years, Adamson has not worked with many lions recently, but currently he is raising three cubs, now half-grown, taking them on walks and letting them roam on their own during the day. At night they return voluntarily to a penned area in his compound. Soon he will shut them out, obliging them to live free.

Adamson finances his feeding and care for the lions mostly from his pension as a game warden.

In 1983, a research team came to Kora to study the flora and fauna, sent by the British Royal Geographic Society. Malcolm Coe, the leader, included a section about the lion keeper in his final report. Though the scientific value of Adamson's work is small, he said, Adamson had done much to increase world awareness of and financial support for conservation of wild animals.

Mr. Coe praised the concept Adamson has popularized of reintroducing captive animals to the wild. Such activity will be increasingly needed, he said, to restock areas where certain species have disappeared.

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