What is the story of Born Free?

The story of Born Free is the story of Elsa, a female lioness, who was orphaned when a Kenyan Game Warden, George Adamson, shot her mother in 1956 because she charged at him in defence of her three kittens. They were only three weeks old when their mother was shot. Because he shot her Adamson decided to raise her offspring. Elsa’s two sisters went to the Netherlands’ Rotterdam Zoo. Elsa stayed with George Adamson and his wife Joy Adamson who hand-reared the newborn cub.

The story of Born Free - the players
The story of Born Free – the players. The pictures are in the public domain and the montage is by Michael.

Joy Adamson wrote the book “Born Free”. It was made into a highly successful film of the same name which arguably romanticised the reality of the situation which I, frankly, find sad. There’s lots of violence surrounding the story.

Tame/wild Elsa

The Adamsons spent a year training Elsa to hunt and kill. When she was 27-months-of-age she was set free in a game reserve. She eventually mated with a wild lion and in December 1959 gave birth to 3 cubs of her own. When the cubs were six weeks old she started to bring them to the Adamsons’ camp thereby retaining her links with her human foster-parents despite living in the wild is a wild lioness.

Elsa’s death and the aftermath

Elsa died prematurely of a parasitic infection in 1961. It was a form of babesiosis, a tick-born blood disease similar to malaria which often infects the cat family. George and Joy Adamson captured her cubs and moved them to the relative safety of the Serengeti reserve.

Elsa’s home was Meru National Park in Kenya. When she was there it was a glorious wildlife haven but it was overrun by poachers after her death. I’ll presume that it wasn’t a safe place at the time of her death which is one reason why her cubs were removed from the Park. In fact, sentiment had turned against Elsa and her cubs at the time of her death. And her cubs were more averse to human contact. It appears that they were even averse to contact with George and Joy Adamson which complicated matters. After their release in the Serengeti their fate was uncertain. However, George Adamson found one of the cubs, a female, “Little Elsa” healthy and in the company of two other unrelated lions during a 19 month search.

The book and films

As mentioned, Elsa was made famous by a series of books, films and television programmes. The worldwide bestseller Born Free was published in 1960. In 1965 Colombia made a feature film version of the book starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers. The sequel was made in 1972 based on a subsequent book by Joy Adamson called Living Free which starred Susan Hampshire and Nigel Davenport.

Public attitude

Joy Adamson’s books (she wrote many more) made a major impact on the public in their attitude towards lions. At the time a survey indicated that although lions were in a list of the top 10 most loved animals they were also included in the top 10 most hated animals because of their savagery. After the book and film, a subsequent survey indicated that the lion had disappeared from the top 10 animal hates but remained in the top 10 animal loves.


There is sadness in Elsa’s death which was premature and the way that the park where she was born was invaded by poachers destroying wildlife after her death. There is further sadness in the way the Adamsons died. They both lived in close proximity with lions, a dangerous animal, without a problem but on 3rd January 1980 Joy Adamson was murdered by a Turkana servant who she had sacked. Nine years later on 29th August 1989 George Adamson was murdered by Somali bandits.

Before their deaths, their marriage had failed and they were separated in 1970 but continued to spend Christmas holidays together until her death.

Sources: BBC, Wikipedia, Cat World, Me.

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