For the first time in about 3 years, I decided to watch To Walk With Lions. The film, depicting the real life story of George Adamson (of Born Free fame) moves me deeply – not least because of the incredible performance of Richard Harris in the role of George, depicting the final months before his murder in 1989. But beyond the legendary character of Mr Adamson, the film is really about the rise of the next generation of conservationists, in this case: Tony Fitzjohn. It was by sheer coincidence then, that I found myself at an IWCT (International Wildlife Coalition Trust) event just days later, to raise awareness of Tony Fitzjohn’s work in Tanzania over the last 26 years, continuing George’s legacy. There is something quite wonderful about revisiting a story that moved you, and then so unexpectedly coming across the next (real life) chapter. The fundraising event, attended by IWCT patron Dame Judi Dench, was specifically supporting Fitzjohn’s work with African Wild Dogs – considered a pest to many game reserves and sanctuaries in Africa, due to their high success rate in killing game (and not always eating it…) the Wild Dogs, or African Painted Dogs are killed or driven out by farmers and game keepers alike. Even Shamwari was in the process of selling its Wild Dogs at auction when I arrived to volunteer there in 2008; after their clever hunting technique of chasing animals onto the electric fence to kill them, left several animals a night dead, but the Wild Dogs unable to feed off of them, as they too would end up with a nasty electric shock. The IWCT believes in supporting and protecting the welfare and rights of all animals, but is currently focusing its campaign efforts on dogs in the Philippines (stopping the dog meat trade) and supporting African Wild Dogs, which are too often treated as commodities. The organisation was holding this special evening to raise funds for new tracking collars for a pack of Wild Dogs that the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust has been breeding for re-release in Tanzania. As well as having the infamous Dame Judi Dench as a patron, the organisation also boosts the likes of Peter Egan as patron, who works closely with the charity Animals Asia, and is best-known for his Ever Descending Circles fame. I must extend my thanks to Anneka Svenska for the invitation to, unwittingly, discover what happens when you continue to walk with lions, and African animals alike.
Wow! What a month! Where do I even start to unravel my latest goings on? Life is certainly a funny game, filled with unexpected twists and turns; sunrises creeping up over horizons you hadn’t even noticed existed behind the entangled thickets of everyday life. This last month has certainly been one of those such scenarios. Busy throwing myself into my many projects; my 9-5(ish) of writing for magazines, blogging for Livelikeavip.com, the odd music review, the odd careers-related post and even keeping an eye on the St Albans Film Festival – which is very close to my heart – it can be a little hard to keep up with myself sometimes. But following a fantastic night in London celebrating Born Free Foundation’s 30th Anniversary ‘Wild Night at the Movies’ event, I have been overwhelmed by the response my review post on the evening received – including from the likes of journalist Kate Silverton (who chaired the interview with Born Free Founder Virgin Mckenna on the night) and Will Travers OBE; CEO of the Born Free Foundation. But who knew that Tweeting my blog out to the masses would result in an incredibly inspiring and motivational meeting in a private member’s club off of The Strand, London, whereby I would find myself talking through my lifelong journey of supporting the Born Free charity – how it’s influenced my greatest adventures (my gap year spent volunteering in South Africa), my creative talents (my only art exhibition was themed on Africa Wildlife), my travel activities (I spent time in Australia volunteering for Conservation Volunteers Australia) and my career ambitions (my first job out of university was working for Discovery Communications), with Will Travers himself?!
With fantastic support and encouragement, the result of our meeting was that I will revive my Kate on Conservation blog, with the full support of the Born Free Foundation – receiving direct information and (hopefully) a few exclusives, to bring my lovely readers my genuine thoughts and perspectives on conservation issues across the globe from a compassionate supporter’s perspective. I can’t tell you how excited I am!
In the mean time, I’ve been pretty reflective on my relationship with the charity thus far… here’s a little look back on the journey I’ve had to reach this point of blogging with Born Free Foundation:
Using the Born Free Foundation as the basis for my end of primary school project; 2001.
Following Born Free updates over the years (some of my hoard, which runs from 2002 – 2014!)2008, aged 18, I made the life-changing decision to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve, home of the Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries.
We’re running late. The Piccadilly traffic stands still, a glistening of red rubies not unlike something I’d seen in a jewellery store window. Bathed in the cool white glow of the infamous Piccadilly Circus screens, this would normally be one of my favourite city scenes. But not tonight, not when we’re running late.
“It’s 30 years since Born Free Foundation began.
25 years since the wise, gentle George Adamson was murdered.
20 years since our inspiration in all that Born Free does, my beloved father Bill Travers passed away…”
Tugging at the doors of BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, they moved just a couple of millimetres before falling back on the themselves forcefully. It’s locked?
“How do we get in?”
“No idea. It is here, isn’t it?”
I find two buttons, one for disabled, automatic door access, one for calling reception. I press both, instantaneously. One has to work.
“But 30 years for wildlife, and here we are, all together. The Born Free generation”. We applaud loudly and I’m grinning like a baffoon as Will Travers OBE descends the stage and returns to his seat beside his mother; Virginia McKenna OBE. I’ve seen him in countless newsletters and leaflets but he’s taller than I’d imagined. More studious looking. “The Born Free generation” I repeat in my mind. I agree. I’m 23 and this film and it’s namesake charity have always been a part of my growing up. In my life like a family member. Adoption packs, letters, bags for old ink cartridges, a pile of used stamps I’ve been meaning to send. A bookcase with a shelf filled with various editions of stories from and about the Adamsons; the films – DVDs next to VHS’ that I refuse to part with. A stuffed toy of Aslan sits next to a framed photograph in which I’m laughing with my Shamwari volunteer workmates as we sat across the wooden benches of the Julie Ward Education centre. A black and white poster of Joy sitting over Elsa as she’s rolling on her back, more like a dog than a lioness. Five seconds in my room and it’s undeniable. I’m one of the Born Free generation.
The door swings open slowly but at just the right speed to drink each feature in at a rate I can process. A screen above an elevator has the comfortingly familiar Born Free Foundation logo (phew. We are in the right place). A golden face, the symbol of BAFTA stares out from the first half of a staircase, and there at the foot of the stairs a small white plague, humbly announcing the 30th Anniversary ‘Wild Night at the Movies’. I check the time of my phone – 7.31. We’re not doing too badly.
I hear the soft crunching of popcorn as a commotion breaks out on screen. The editing is a little more jumpy than I remember, and the speed of the frames as a man-eating lion runs into the gun fire of Bill Travers’ portrayal of George is faster than I expected. But it’s perfect. Charming, dramatic, nostalgic.
At the top of the staircase, passed the reception, we walk into the David Lean room. Large banners and merchandise stalls greet us. I can breathe again now. I smile as we’re handed a glass of Wild Thing wine and drink in the room as well as the sweetness of the wine. There are familiar faces all around – one of Born Free Foundation’s most passionate campaigners; Helen Worth (Coronation Street’s Gail Platt), soap nasty John Altman (Eastenders’ Nick Cotton) to name drop just a couple. “If you’d like to make your way into the auditorium…” a voice calls out. Will Travers steps aside with a smile and a “after you”, before I’ve even realised who I’ve slid past. At least I was gracious enough to allow whoever was about to step out of the elevator to enter the auditorium before me. It turned out to be Leslie Phillips CBE and his beautiful wife. Is this night for real?
George Adamson: I don’t know what goes on in that head of yours anymore… What’s wrong with a zoo, anyway?
Joy Adamson: Nothing. Except that she won’t be free.
George Adamson: and Is freedom so important?
Joy Adamson: Yes, yes, she was born free and she has the right to live free. Why don’t we live in a more comfortable setting George? Other people do. We chose to live out here cause it represents freedom for us. Because we can breathe.
With all the grace and elegance I’ve come to associate with her on-screen presence, Virginia spent the next hour talking us through her life and career before and beyond the Born Free film (with a little help from Mr Phillips): expertly guided through the questions of a blossoming Kate Silverton (who vows that when she goes into labour she will have the film’s theme song on her ‘birthing playlist’, just like she did with her first child!). I was staggered to learn that this is only the second time that Virginia has watched the film, and that the song nearly didn’t make it into the final cut as the producers ‘weren’t convinced’ at first.
As the iconic first line of John Barry’s “Born free, as free as the wind blows…” fills the auditorium I try to swallow the lump in my throat. It’s been building up since Bill Travers delivered the line: “You must be very proud”. Given the circumstances, it’s so poignant. I think everyone in the room feels both proud and inspired by Virginia Mckenna and I think to myself how proud Bill would have been of all that Virginia and Will have achieved through Born Free in the two decades since his passing. “I’m proud of her” the character of Joy Adamson responds.
All too soon – to the roaring sound of a passionate and heart-felt standing ovation for Virginia – my dream evening was coming to a close. But I had a lot of long-lasting thoughts to take home with me. What next? What will happen over the next 30 years? Will the animals still be free?
“I believe in the ‘drip, drip, drip effect’,” was Virginia’s parting thought that concluded the interview: the response that led to the entire audience rising to their feet to applaud – “that if we keep doing the little things that we can, they’ll lead to a big impact. We must never lose hope. We will win.”
As mentioned in my last blog, I have read The Lions’ Legacy, the biography of the late George Adamson whom the film ‘Born Free’ was based on. In fact, I have read many books about George and Joy Adamson’s lives with lions, including Joy’s series ‘Born Free’, ‘Living Free’ and ‘Forever Free’, which are the most famous titles. Their life, and later George’s life without Joy, surrounded by the sights and smells of the savannah fascinates me. Not least because their decision to hand raise Elsa the lioness, and the subsequent film depicting their tale, led to the founding of the Born Free Foundation. It was Virginia McKenna OBE (whom took on the role of Joy) and the late Bill Travers (whom depicted George) that started the foundation after being deeply moved by the tale.
Interestingly, there was a further film made about George Adamson, portraying much of what is covered in the afore-mentioned biography. The film ‘To Walk with Lions’ shows much of his later life after his marriage with Joy broke down. Even as an elderly man George chose to live amongst the African wild and sacrificed all he had for his beloved lions.
Being the avid follower of the stories and biographies relating to Born Free, I also bought myself a copy of the book ‘Christian the Lion’ but have yet to read it, despite it being quite a famous story. Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day to do all the reading I would like.
I suppose the appeal for me is that every time I read about the sights, sounds and smells of the bush I am transported back to a time where I woke up every morning for 3 months to the dramatic African sunrises and the songs of the birds flying over the reserve. I think to live in such a place that touched my heart the way South Africa did will always be a dream of mine.
As a further chapter to the ‘Born Free’ film, in 1996 the movie ‘Born Free: a New Adventure’ was released, telling the story of a young American family trading the concrete jungle of New York for the wilds of Africa. Similarly to Joy and George’s story, they find themselves having to introduce a lion back to the wild.