Joy Adamson


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The saintly and devoted Born Free conservationist did wonderful work with Elsa and other lions but was less successful with men. A tale of adultery, broken marriages and murder.

Real name Fredericke Victoria, Joy Adamson will be remembered as one of the twentieth century's great conservationists. Born into a wealthy family in Troppau, Silesia on 20 January 1910, and brought up in Vienna by her grandmother after her parents divorced when she was just ten, she studied the piano. Finding it hard to forge a career as a concert pianist, she tried dressmaking, bookbinding and drawing, whilst pursuing a strong interest in archaeology.

She decided to study medicine, but declined to take her entrance exams, and was married to Victor von Klarwill in 1935. The Jewish Austrian sent her to Africa, with the intention of following her, to escape Nazi persecution. Whilst travelling in Kenya, she met Peter Bally, a botanist, in 1937. She soon divorced her husband, upon him joining her there and subsequently married Bally in 1938. Bally gave her the nickname 'Joy', which would stick for the rest of her life.

Accompanying him on his field trips and painting hundreds of studies of flora and fauna, their marriage also soured. Adamson created more than 500 paintings and line drawings of plants, many of which had never been photographed or accurately drawn in colour.

She later married George Adamson in 1943, the British game warden in the North Frontier District of Kenya. Joy began painting illustrations of animals and people, as well as plants. The Colonial Government of Kenya commissioned her to paint portraits of members of 22 tribes whose culture was vanishing. These paintings, some 600, now belong to the National Museum of Kenya.

She began her famous association with Elsa, a tame lion-cub whom she was determined to teach to return to the wild, in 1956. 'Born Free', her account of the process, was a worldwide success, published in 1960. It has since been published in several languages. It was followed by 'Living Free' (1961) and 'Forever Free' (1962). Elsa the lion-cub was found by the Adamsons after George killed a lioness that was charging him and another warden in 1956. He later found out that she had been protecting three cubs, which he took home.

They raised all three cubs, the smallest of which was Elsa, but after six months this became increasingly difficult. The two larger cubs Lustica and the Big One were sent to a zoo in Rotterdam but they kept Elsa. Joy and George were determined to release her back into the wild rather than to a zoo. They trained her how to hunt and survive, helping her become the first lioness to be successfully released back into the wild, the first to have contact after release and the first to have cubs.

The couple kept their distance from the cubs and only got close enough to photograph them. In 1961, Elsa died from disease resulting from a tick bite. Her cubs became a nuisance so the Adamsons arranged for them to be moved to a national park in Tanzania.

The 1966 film 'Born Free', starring husband-and-wife actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna and filmed in the bush over the course of many months, was a worldwide hit. The stars got to know the real Adamsons, and the couples remained friends for life, working for wildlife causes. The film won two Oscars, including one for music, and is considered to be a family classic. This film was followed by an adaptation of 'Forever Free' about Elsa's cubs called 'Living Free' six years later.

In 1964 she also retrained Pippa, a cheetah described in 'The Spotted Sphinx' (1969), and worked with other animals. By this point, the Adamsons lived apart as George wanted to keep working with lions and Joy with cheetahs. They never divorced and spent Christmases together.

From the 1960s she was a leading conservationist, beginning with her work in launching the World Wildlife Fund in the USA in 1962. On 3 January 1980, she was found dead in northern Kenya in suspicious circumstances. Supposedly mauled by a lion, a man was later charged with her murder.

Her final and posthumous book was 'Queen of Shaba' about Penny, a leopard, and her cubs. It was published in 1980. Tragically, George Adamson was murdered nine years later, in 1989, near his camp in Kora, while rushing to the aid of a tourist who was being attacked by poachers.

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