Joy Adamson (January 20, 1910 – January 3, 1980) was a popular wildlife conservationist of the 1960s and an author, best known for her book, Born Free, which described her experiences in saving the life of a lioness, Elsa.
Mrs. Adamson was born Joy Friedericke Victoria Gessner in Troppau, Silesia, Austria-Hungary (now Opava, Czech Republic). In 1937 she moved to Kenya, then a British Colony. In 1944 she married George Adamson, a British game warden in Kenya, and adopted Kenya as her own country, living on the shores of Lake Naivasha. It was with Adamson, her third husband, that her most crucial and well-known work was done. Their works were pivotal for the foundation of modern conservation.
They acquired Elsa, a tame lion cub, in 1956, after George had killed the cub's mother in self-defense. For two years Joy and George trained the animal for a return to the wild, and the subsequent book about Elsa, Born Free (1960), was an international success. Adamson followed the book with Living Free (1961) and Forever Free (1962). These first two books were made into films. In addition to her books about lions, Adamson also wrote two books about Pippa, a cheetah she took on in 1964, as well as numerous other books about her life in Africa. She was also an accomplished artist and many of her paintings are displayed in a museum in Nairobi, Kenya.
Joy and George separated in the 1970s, though they never divorced. On January 3, 1980, Joy was found murdered in a remote region of Kenya. George was murdered August 20, 1989, in an isolated region of Nairobi. This was an ironic end to the lives of two who had lived in such seemingly dangerous circumstances with wild animals; that their deaths were at the hands of men.
Joy Adamson was born on January 20, 1910, as Friederike Victoria Gessner in Troppau, Austrian Silesia (now Opava in Czechia) the middle of three girls. Her parents divorced when she was young and she was sent to live with her grandmother ('Oma' in German). In her autobiography The Searching Spirit she wrote about her beloved Oma, "It is to her I owe anything that may be good in me."
She was an active child who enjoyed such sports and games as playing lion-hunt with other children, swimming and tennis. She would often accompany the resident gamekeeper through thickets filled with deer and foxes, listening to his tales of wild animals.
Her grandmother provided her with singing and piano lessons. She also studied fine arts such as sculpture and metal-crafts, along with photography and horse-riding. She also expressed an interest in psychoanalysis, which was very fashionable in Vienna at that time.
In 1935 she married the successful businessman and amateur ornithologist, Victor von Klarwill, who sent her to Africa to find a safe place for the two of them to live out World War II. They arrived in Africa on May 13, 1937.
Arriving in Kenya with her husband two years after her marriage, she recalled later, she "fell in love with this wonderful country," and stayed.
During her initial voyage to Africa, Friederike Victoria met the Swiss botanist Peter Bally. Bally soon became her second husband; it was he who gave her the name "Joy." Joy assisted her husband in his work, painting the plants he collected. She eventually illustrated seven books relating to East African flora. The Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain awarded her the Grenfell Gold Medal for this work in 1947.
World-famous archaeologists and anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey worked on excavations in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya and in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanganyika, (now Tanzania). Joy worked with them in these excavation projects.
Near the end of the 1940s Joy began painting the natives of Kenya, portraying them in their traditional clothing and ornaments. For six years she traveled throughout remote regions of the country, capturing the images of 54 main tribes and producing over 700 pictures. Many of her paintings are featured in the Nairobi National Museum and other locations in the city.
In 1944 Joy's marriage to Peter Bally foundered. She met a British-Irish game warden named George Adamson while on safari and married him later that year.
George Adamson was born in Dholpur, Rajasthan, India (then British India). He first came to Kenya in 1924 at the age of 18 to work on his father's coffee plantation. After a series of adventures, which included time as a gold prospector, he joined Kenya's game department in 1938 and was Senior Game Warden of the Northern Frontier District.
Joy and George Adamson pioneered the practice of releasing animals born or raised in captivity back into the wild in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It has since become a common practice. Kenya's first wildlife reserves were funded in part by the profits from their initial book "Born Free," the story of their work with Elsa. Further books and subsequent films brought conservation issue to the world's attention.
In 1956, while game warden of the Northern Frontier District in Kenya, George, in the course of his job, shot and killed a lioness as she charged him and another man. Not realized at the time of the shooting, the lioness was protecting her just-born litter. The three cubs were taken in and cared for by the Adamsons for six months. After this time it became apparent that the growing cubs were too much for them and their staff. The two strongest of the litter were sent to a Dutch zoo. The third, Elsa, the Adamsons kept and became attached to. Joy Adamson is best known for her conservation effort with Elsa.
When Elsa by chance met and roamed briefly with a pride of wild lions, the Adamsons received the inspiration to re-integrate her back into the wild. They spent many months training her to hunt and survive on her own, and were successful in the end; Elsa became the first lioness released successfully, the first to have re-contact after release, and the first known to have cubs after release. She often took her three cubs, born in 1959, to the Adamsons’ camp. Her cubs lived with her in the wild but grew increasingly used to human company. The Adamsons did their best to keep their distance from the cubs so that they would remain wild, but they got close enough to photograph them. Elsa would stand between the humans and the cubs if she felt her human friends were getting too close. These were the first experiments in returning animals to the wild.
In 1960 the Adamsons wrote the book "Born Free," about their experiences with Elsa, desiring to stimulate interest in wild animals. It rapidly became a best-seller. It was to be the first of a trilogy, Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds (1960), Living Free: The Story of Elsa and Her Cubs (1961), and Forever Free: Elsa's Pride (1962). A 1964 release of a movie based on the first book brought the Adamsons celebrity status.
George Adamson retired from his position of Senior Game Warden at Meru National Park in April 1961 to devote himself to working with lions, while Joy turned her attention to cheetahs. She used her book and movie profits to support a conservation project known as Elsa Wild Animal Appeal. She then began working with leopards, rehabilitating them for re-entry into the wild. She was working on this project at the time of her death. Their work proved that with skillful and considered action, many animals raised by humans may be effectively re-integrated into the wild.
Five years after the Adamsons' successes in their reintegration efforts, George Adamson was expelled from the reserve after one of his favorite lions Boy, mauled the son of a warden. The government would only allow him to continue his wildlife rehabilitation program in Kora, an isolated and almost uninhabited region of desert over 200 miles from Nairobi.
In 1970, George and Joy Adamson separated, due in part to the intense heat and isolation of Kora, as well as long standing tensions within the relationship. They did not divorce and continued spending Christmas together. The successful partnership had come to an end.
On January 3, 1980, in a remote part of Kenya, the 69 year old Adamson's body was discovered by her assistant, Peter Morson, on a road near her camp in the Shaba Nature Preserve, where she had lived for three years. He assumed that Joy had been killed by a lion, and this was what was initially reported by the media.
Further police investigation found that Joy's wounds were too sharp and bloodless to have been caused by an animal, and concluded that Joy was murdered with a sharp instrument. The authorities questioned her former employees, as Adamson had a reputation for firing many of them.
Paul Nakware Ekai, a Turkana tribesman who was employed by Adamson, was convicted of her murder in 1981 and sentenced to a life sentence in a Nairobi prison. Ekai had escaped the death sentence because the judge ruled that he was a minor when the crime was committed. In 2004 Ekai claimed that he had killed her after she shot him in the leg for complaining that he had not been paid, however, in 2005 he recanted his 1980 confession and claimed he had nothing to do with her killing.
At his wife's funeral, George Adamson promised to carry on her work. According to her wishes, her cremated remains were scattered by George on the graves of the cheetah Pippa and the lioness Elsa.
At age 83, on August 20, 1989, George Adamson and two of his assistants were killed by Somali poachers when they intervened on behalf of a group of German tourists at Kampi Ya Simba (camp of the lions) in Kora.
Joy and George Adamson had chosen to remain in the wilds of Kenya in spite of the opportunities that had come due to the fame of their published works. They chose to remain in a harsh and isolated environment among wild and predatory cats in order to continue their life's work. The irony of their deaths at the hands of humans after devoting decades to the wilds of Africa cannot be missed.
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