Nairobi — In Africa you do not ask how far a place is, you ask how long will it take to get there.
On the map of Kenya, the two national parks of Meru and Kora border each other. But in reality, it takes five hours to drive the 180-kilometre stretch from Rhino River Camp near Murera Gate – the main gate to Meru National Park – to the grave of one of the legendary figure of the 20th century, George Adamson, in the heart of Kora National Park.
This year marks 21 years since Adamson was killed on August 20, 1989 in Kora, by Somali poachers when he responded to a distress call from a group of German tourists near Kampi Ya Simba (camp of the lions). His battered Land Rover was shot at and he was killed alongside two of his assistants. As we cover the kilometres through the sun parched land, where nothing but the hardiest of plants survive, the wildlife’s only source of water is the mighty River Tana, Kenya’s longest river that flows down from the cool highland glades of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya.
It is in this unforgiving land that one man found refuge for himself and the lions he treasured, and became a legend. Adamson was also popularly Bwana Simba.
Standing over his simple grave where he rests next to his brother Terence and his favourite lion, Boy, it seems like just yesterday when news flashed around the world that the iconic lion man had been shot dead by the shifta.
Most of the people who turned up in Kora for Adamson’s memorial, drove for more than 10 hours to an area they could not fathom is in Kenya, thus deepening their respect for the man who lived here, so far removed from civilisation.
He was unassuming with no college degree, dressed in khaki shorts and shirtless, yet cut an unforgettable figure as he walked with lions.
Adamson was a visionary. Critics had trashed his work as being of little scientific value because lions were not an endangered species then.
But in his autobiography, My Pride and Joy, he countered: “Lions and the other big cats are being confined, as are elephants, to a limited number of pockets which grow fewer and smaller each year: some are threatened, others have already disappeared.” Today, lions are endangered.
Sitting on the banks of the Tana, facing a stunning wilderness after the memorial ceremony conducted by a Christian priest and a Somali elder, Tony Fitzjohn remembers his mentor of 18 years.”George did not live long enough to see his dream come true,” says Fitzjohn, tall and deeply tanned from his years in the wilderness. “But if he was alive today, he would have been very happy.” Kora, 1,787 square kilometres, was declared a national park in 1989, soon after Adamson’s death.
Fitzjohn arrived in Kenya as a young man from South Africa, where he had gone after leaving his native England. In 1971 he wrote to Joy to ask if he could work with her and she replied that her husband was looking for an assistant.
Like Adamson, Fitzjohn has no scientific background, but has a passion for the wild. “The Amazon forest is the lungs of the planet,” he says, “but Africa is the heart beat.” The last time he left Kora he had been brutally beaten by rangers. “It was 10 months before Adamson was killed,” recalls Fitzjohn.
He had then tried in vain to persuade Adamson to leave Kora. “I still feel awful,” says Fitzjohn.
As fate would have it, Fitzjohn was planning to fly Adamson to his new posting in Tanzania, which had been offered to him by the Tanzanian government, to rehabilitate a remote wasteland into a wilderness area.
It was then that Fitzjohn learned of his death. “We had always put ourselves in harm’s way,” says Fitzjohn. “We had no security in those days.
“I felt incredibly sad when l learn of Adamson’s death. The world instantly felt smaller and harsher because a part of me was gone.
“Kora was a conflict area for decades,” Fitzjohn continues. From the mid 1970s it became a poachers’ playground and where rhinos and elephants had been common, elephants were rare and not a single rhino was left.
“Adamson had a great affinity for lions. Kora had been no-man’s land for years and it did not have that many lions. So it was a great place for George, because he would be out of everyone’s way.” Except the poachers.
Adamson moved to Kora in 1971, after Boy, his favourite lion, then mauled mauled the warden’s son. The wildlife authorities then asked him to leave Meru, and he opted for next-door Kora, where he rented an area of 1,300 sq km.
“He just wanted the lions to live free. He wanted people to respect them for what they were and treat them with love.
“Lions need space but people are closing in on them. Leopards, on the other hand will always survive.”
In 1989, after Adamson’s death, Kora, as far as the world knew, ceased to exist.