Conservation has been a personal journey for Englishman Tony Fitzjohn, who has spent the last 40 years in Africa. It began when he joined George Adamson, known worldwide as a protector of lions, at a Kenyan wildlife refuge in 1971. Fitzjohn has since revived Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania as a sanctuary for black rhinos, and is now returning to Kora National Park in Kenya, where he worked with Adamson in the early days, to try to build on that success.
On December 11, he visited Sue Morse’s Pacific Palisades home in Castellammare to talk about the Kora project and gather local support for the Tony Fitzjohn/George Adamson African Wildlife Preservation Trust.
More than 30 people gathered on the terrace overlooking a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean to meet Fitzjohn, who has lived a big, adventurous life and is a natural raconteur. But when he gathered the group together in the living room to share slides of his work in Africa, Fitzjohn took a more serious tone.
‘Conservation for Africa is not a luxury,’ he told his audience, ‘it is a necessity.’
It’s not just a question of protecting the animals, Fitzjohn explained. Conservation is important to Africa’s people. Tourism is a key driver of the African economy and Fitzjohn points out that those profits are shared broadly, not just by tour companies, but by local tentmakers, construction workers and trackers, ‘unlike mining or oil where the profits go into the pockets of the privileged few.’
Jeff Stein, a former Columbia Pictures executive who is now president and treasurer of the trust, elaborated. ‘The real purpose of the trust and Tony’s work is to create a sustainable community in this part of Africa,’ meaning a harmony among mankind, the environment and animal life.
Part of Fitzjohn’s mission is to reach out and educate the local population and involve them in the process. ‘I have to empower the indigenous people in these countries to do this for themselves’to want to do it and to work out their own reasons why,’ Fitzjohn, who is fluent in Swahili, told the Palisadian-Post in a follow-up interview. ‘If I can and I leave a few of those people behind, then when I slip down to hell, I’ll feel good about it.’
He calls assertions that the African people are indifferent to the fate of their own wildlife ‘absolutely untrue’they believe passionately in their wildlife.’
But those who want to protect lions, rhinos, elephants and other species are fighting many factors, including overgrazing of commercial cattle, uncontrolled burning and commercial meat poaching.
Estimates of the number of lions left in Africa vary from 10,000 to 40,000, but most sources agree that the population is disappearing at an alarming pace. The breed’s numbers have declined by more than 90 percent in the last 50 years, according to National Geographic and have been cut in half over just the last three decades, Scientific American estimates. Rhino species have been similarly decimated.
Fitzjohn was 22 and surfing the beaches in Kenya before he joined George Adamson’s camp in Meru in central Kenya. For 18 years, Fitzjohn worked with Adamson, whose work was well known even outside conservation circles because he raised Elsa, the lion cub whose story was told in the book and film ‘Born Free.’
‘It was a very simple life,’ Fitzjohn said. ‘We formed these very close and very, very intimate relationships’ with the lions. ‘It’s amazing how they still like us, after all we’ve done to them.’
In 1989, based on his experience as a wildlife manager, Fitzjohn was asked by the Tanzanian government to take over Mkomazi, an area larger than Rhode Island. Its black rhino and elephant populations had been largely wiped out by poaching. Overgrazing by cattle stock and deliberate burning had also contributed to what Fitzjohn calls ’20 years of disaster.’
Fitzjohn decided that the best way to save Mkomazi was to focus on one of the most endangered species and build a rhino sanctuary. ‘They are very precious, these rhinos.’ A single rhino horn can fetch up to $85,000 on the black market and the species is critically endangered. Only 110 black rhinos remain in Tanzania, down from 10,000 a few decades ago, by the trust’s count.
It was only after accepting the challenge that Fitzjohn realized that Mkomazi means ‘no water.’ He took a holistic approach to rehabilitating the reserve, focusing as much energy on infrastructure and development as on the animal program,
He slept in the front of his car during the first three months there, but Fitzjohn, a skilled, self-taught engineer and mechanic, ultimately marshaled the resources to build an airstrip (he’s also a bush pilot) and 600 miles of roads, and to bring in electricity and water, restoring old colonial dams and constructing two large new ones.
He hired a team of armed guards made up of ex-Tanzanian Army men, trained his own trackers and brought in eight rhinos from South Africa. In six years, the rhinos had started breeding.
‘All you have to do to be a rhino’s best friend is to give him some water and some mud,’ said Fitzjohn, who tends to downplay his own contributions, though his work has been honored by Queen Elizabeth with the Order of the British Empire.
‘It’s not rocket science, it’s just hard work that needs to be done,’ Fitzjohn told the Post.
His success is also grounded in his relationship with government officials. More typically, conservationists divide the world into ‘them and us,’ with government on the opposing side, he said. As a result, Fitzjohn is sometimes criticized for being what he calls ‘a bit pal-y pal-y’ with the authorities. ‘I give them a hard time,’ he explained, ‘but not necessarily in public,’ because he believes their trust is essential.
Mkomazi has been so successful that the Kenyan government and Kenya Wildlife Services asked Fitzjohn to return to Kora National Park, once the site of Adamson’s lion camp, to restore what the trust calls ‘one of the most important ecosystems in Kenya.’
‘The urgency is now,’ Fitzjohn said, ‘while Kenya is trying to sort out its problem with the massive encroachment and damage the Somalis have done over the years to the country.’
He hopes to raise $2.5 million to fund the next five years of work at Kora and plans to be in a position to bring in lion cubs by the end of February.
‘We believe this relationship we have with the animals is part of a continuum and that we can live with these animals,’ said Fitzjohn, who was mauled and nearly killed by a lion in 1975.
Another tenet of the trust’s mission statement is that ‘future generations will feel it,’the gnawing sense of something lost’and they will blame us for their grief.’ Fitzjohn and his wife Lucy have long made Africa their home, raising four children there, and the conservationist offers a more personal take.
‘I’m just gonna make sure that my kids never turn around to me and say, ‘Look, Dad, you were in the business, you knew what was going on at the time; why didn’t you do something?”
More information on the Tony Fitzjohn/George Adamson African Wildlife Preservation Trust can be found at wildlifenow.com