Joy Adamson (1910-1980) is best known for the books and films depicting her work in Africa with "Elsa the Lioness," introduced in her book Born Free. Together with husband George Adamson, she raised the orphaned Elsa from a cub and trained the lioness to fend for herself in the wild. Adamson spent almost 40 years living on game reserves in Kenya, and became heavily involved in wildlife preservation activities.
Noted naturalist and wildlife preservationist Joy Adamson was born Friederike Victoria Gessner, in 1910, to a wealthy Austrian family; her birthplace in the Silesian region of Austria is now part of Slovakia. In her autobiography, The Searching Spirit, Adamson tells of a childhood game that foretold her future: "Was it a portent that as children our favorite game was a lion hunt and that because of my blond hair and reputation for being a quick runner, I was always assigned the role of the lioness?" Hunting was a favorite sport on her family's estate but, after she shot a deer with the estate's gamekeeper while a teenager, Adamson vowed never to kill for sport again.
Married Three Times
Creative since a young child, Adamson dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, but her hands were too small. So she turned to such varied fields as psychoanalysis, archaeology, and painting. After studying medicine but never taking her final exam, Adamson married Victor von Klarwill in 1935. Her new husband, a Jew, decided that the couple should move to Kenya to escape the rising Nazi movement in Austria, and sent his young wife ahead to Africa. Unfortunately, on the voyage there, she met Peter Bally, a botanist, and when her husband arrived in Kenya, Adamson announced her intention to divorce him. She married Bally shortly afterward, in 1938.
Bally travelled through Kenya, studying its plant life, and his wife accompanied him. She began to paint their findings, and eventually completed 700 paintings that were published in several books; the paintings themselves are now housed at the National Museum in Nairobi, Kenya. However, within only a few years, there was a second divorce, closely followed in 1943 by a third and final marriage for Adamson. She had met and fell in love with George Adamson, a game warden in an outlying area of Kenya, and the couple, while often living apart in later years, spent the rest of their lives traveling through the Kenyan wilderness. Early in her marriage to Adamson, Joy once again used her talents as an artist, painting the 600 portraits of Kenyan tribal members that were later published in her book The Peoples of Kenya.
Began Working with Lions
George Adamson, as a game warden, often encountered lions and other wildlife during his travels. In 1956 he was forced to kill a lioness that attacked him; it was later discovered that she was apparently trying to protect her three cubs. Two of the cubs were sturdy enough to be sent to a zoo, but the Adamsons kept the third cub, a small female that they named Elsa. In her book Born Free, Adamson tells the story of how she and her husband raised the cub, and then had to train her to fend for herself and return to the wilderness. After a great deal of work with Elsa, the Adamsons knew for certain that they had been successful when they left Elsa in the wild for a week and returned to find that she had killed a waterbuck. Elsa's story in Born Free ended with the news that the lioness had three cubs of her own.
In Adamson's two sequels to Born Free—Living Free and Forever Free—she tells the further stories of Elsa's cubs: Jespah, Gopa, and Little Elsa. The Kenyan government was not altogether pleased with the Adamsons' project, and asked them to move the lions to an outlying area of the Serengeti Plain. While the search for a new home was going on in early 1961, Elsa became ill and died. There is a marker on her grave in the Meru Game Reserve in Kenya. The Adamsons then had to train her cubs, who were still too young to be released in the wild, how to become hunters. Eventually they too were released, but were never sighted again.
Elsa an Inspiration to Many
Although Elsa was gentle with those she trusted, she nevertheless was a wild creature, and biographical works about Adamson tell of the deep scratches, cuts, and bites that Elsa inflicted on Joy and others. Nevertheless, Adamson long mourned the loss of Elsa, saying in her autobiography, "My relationship with Elsa had not only widened my understanding of animal behavior and psychology but also had introduced me to a world denied to most human beings. With Elsa's death a vital part of myself died also."
All three of the "Elsa" books were extremely well received, and films were made of all of them, 1966's Born Free being the most popular. This book also was made into a television series. The stars of the film series, Virginia McKenna and her husband Bill Travers, were so moved by the Adamsons' work that they later founded the Born Free Foundation in England to support wildlife conservation. It is estimated that the "Elsa" series and other Adamson books have been translated into at least 35 languages. According to Adamson biographer, Adrian House, in his The Great Safari: The Lives of George and Joy Adamson, Born Free served as inspiration for Iain Douglas Hamilton, a major activist working to protect the African elephant from extinction, to become a zoologist. House also notes that anthropologist Desmond Morris credits Born Free with affecting an entire generation's attitude toward animals.
After Elsa's death and the release of her cubs, Adamson adopted a young cheetah, Pippa, who had been the house pet of a British army officer. For several years, Pippa also was trained to survive in the wild. Her story is told in Adamson's The Spotted Sphinx. Pippa is buried in the Meru Game Reserve, near Elsa. Adamson also studied and worked with a variety of other animals, including baby elephants, buffaloes, and colobus monkeys. Not all of the Adamsons' work with wildlife was successful. One lion that had been returned to the wilderness was destroyed after it returned to areas inhabited by humans, attacked a child, and killed one of the Adamsons' servants.
Focused Later Life on Wildlife Preservation
As is still the case today, preservation of African wild-life was a serious problem in the 1960s and 1970s. The Kenyan government did not place a particularly high priority on saving wildlife, and even in protected reserves poaching was a common event. Adamson went on an international tour to speak about wildlife preservation in 1962, and became a founder of the World Wildlife Fund and the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal. The royalties from her books about Elsa were used to set up animal reserves and to fund numerous preservation organizations. Adamson also was an early activist in the movement to boycott clothing made from animal fur.
While publicly Adamson remain steadfast in her dedication to wildlife-related causes, her domestic life was not altogether tranquil during her third marriage. At least twice during the marriage one of the partners filed for divorce. During the last 15 years of Adamson's life, she and her husband often traveled through Kenya separately, although they maintained a permanent home near Nairobi.
Mysteriously Murdered in the Wilderness
On January 3, 1980, the world heard the shocking news that Adamson had been killed in the Shaba Game Reserve in northern Kenya, where she had been observing leopard behavior. Even more shocking was the original explanation for Adamson's death, as reported by her chief assistant, Pieter Mawson: that she had been mauled by a lion. George Adamson was at a remote area elsewhere in Kenya at the time of the murder and was unable to return for an entire day. But even from that distance he refused to believe that a lion had killed his wife. It quickly became apparent to the authorities as well that human forces were responsible. Adamson's body had been found on a road near her camp by Mawson, but her injuries were caused by stabs from a swordlike weapon and head injuries, not by a lion's fangs and claws. Her tent also had been opened, and the contents of a trunk had been scattered.
Because Mawson had been so quick to blame a lion for Adamson's death when the injuries were obviously not caused by a lion, he was at first considered a suspect in the case. But the police then arrested Paul Ekai, a young Kenyan who had been fired by Adamson and claimed that she owed him money. After Ekai was interrogated and confessed, he was convicted of murder. Because of his youth, he was sentenced to an undetermined prison sentence instead of death. However, Ekai insisted during his trial that the Kenyan police had tortured him into confessing. Shortly afterward, Mawson was killed in an automobile accident, and so the full truth about Adamson's death will probably never be known.
A quiet funeral ceremony for Adamson was held near Nairobi. Her second husband, Peter Bally, attended, as well as their current friends working in the wildlife preservation movement. However, as George Adamson would be quoted as saying in The Great Safari, "None of Joy's oldest and closest friends was there that day for they were either dead or in Europe." Adamson had specified in her will that her body be cremated, and her ashes be buried in Elsa and Pippa's graves. Her husband and several colleagues took her ashes, divided them in half, and placed them in the graves of Adamson's two dear friends in the Meru Game Reserve.
George Adamson carried on his work alone after his wife's murder. On August 20, 1989, the elderly Adamson also was killed in the Kenyan wilderness, along with two coworkers. The murders were blamed on several shifta, or bandit-poachers, who were roaming the area. Nevertheless, the work of Joy and George Adamson lives on, through the books that Adamson wrote and the organizations she founded.
Further Reading on Joy Adamson
Adamson, Joy, Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds, Pantheon, 1960.
Adamson, Joy, Forever Free, Harcourt, 1963.
Adamson, Joy, Living Free: The Story of Elsa and Her Cubs, Harcourt, 1961.
Adamson, Joy, The Peoples of Kenya, Collins & Harvill, 1967.
Adamson, Joy, The Searching Spirit, Harcourt, 1979.
Adamson, Joy, The Spotted Sphinx, Harcourt, 1969.
Cass, Caroline, Joy Adamson: Behind the Mask, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992.
House, Adrian, The Great Safari: The Lives of George and Joy Adamson, Morrow, 1993.
Born Free Foundation Home Page, http://web.ukonline.co.uk/bornfree/bornfree.htm (March 4, 1998).