On safari with Will Travers in Meru National Park
There is a moving moment in the film Born Free, when Elsa the lioness walks towards Joy and George Adamson, played by actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. Elsa had spent a week trying to fend for herself in northern Kenya. As she approaches the couple, they see that their experiment hasn’t worked: she is thin, bloodied and limping.
Legendary conservationists Joy and George were attempting to return the lioness they loved to the wild, but her injuries proved to George that she was unable to survive in her natural habitat. She had grown too accustomed to human care.
“What’s wrong with a zoo anyway?” George asks Joy. “Is freedom so important?”
“Yes!” cries Joy with passion. “She was born free and she has the right to live free!”
The Adamsons raised Elsa to maturity after she was orphaned as a tiny cub in 1956, when George killed a charging lioness who was her mother. For the first few years of her life, Elsa and her two sisters lived with George, Joy and a pet rock-hyrax called Pati-Pati, at their game warden’s house in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District.
After her sisters were sent to a zoo in Holland, Elsa joined her adoptive parents on safaris, travelling across the ancient dry lakebed of the Chalbi desert, to the volcanic slopes of the Marsabit Mountains, and to the white beaches of Kenya’s coast. Joy wrote about their devotion to Elsa in the book Born Free, which was made into an Oscar-winning film, released in 1966.
I accompanied Will Travers, Bill and Virginia’s son, who is President and CEO of the Born Free Foundation, to Meru National Park in Kenya, where Elsa lived. The Born Free Foundation declared 2016 the Year of the Lion in order to highlight the growing threats to lions.
In 1966, there were approximately 200,000 lions in Africa. Now, there may be as few as 20,000, and in Kenya there are only around 2,000. Will was travelling to Meru to mark the 50th anniversary of the film, and to observe vital new lion conservation projects.
Will and I took a Twin Otter plane from Nairobi to Meru. As we flew over the forested slopes and glaciers of Mt Kenya, Will told me that he had spent ten months living in an old settlers house at the foot of the mountain while his parents were filming. But, he wasn’t allowed on set. “Children are too volatile,” he said. “We could have triggered unwanted responses in the lions. Kids and lions don’t mix.”
The perfect land for lions
Meru National Park is part of the wider Meru Conservation Area in the eastern shadow of Mount Kenya. Described by UNESCO as ‘one of the remaining true wilderness areas in Kenya, and the world’, it is a vast 3,200 square km complex of protected areas that lie along the Tana River basin. These include the Bisanadi and Mwingi National reserves, Kora National Park and Meru National Park itself, one of Kenya’s oldest parks.
Meru was severely affected by rampant poaching during the 1970s and 80s – although lions were not targeted – but the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) helped to bring lawlessness under control. Today it is recognized as having a greater diversity of animal species than any other park in East Africa. “No one is here” says Tim Oloo, Born Free’s Kenya Country Manager. “It is rich in biodiversity and herbivores, so it’s a perfect habitat for lions.”
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The park is Born Free’s heartland. “It is in my DNA, I feel at home here,” says Will. “It is such a privilege to be able to re-engage with nature that isn’t man-made. Meru is entirely wild.’’ At our first meeting at Kenya Wildlife Service’s Meru HQ, Will writes, “Home again!’” in the visitors’ book.
Dr Tuqa Jirmo, KWS’s Senior Warden, gives Will news about a young male lion called Hugo. After being orphaned in Garissa County, Hugo was kept in captivity in Nairobi until he was old enough to be an effective hunter. He was then successfully released into the wild in Meru. “We may be able to show that lions can be translocated and successfully released if they are not kept in captivity for very long,” says Dr Jirmo, a lion expert in his own right.
As we cross the park to Elsa’s grave, I see it is as wild as Will described: a vast place of riverine woodlands, granite outcrops, grassy savannah and mountain-fed rivers, that lies at the foot of the blue Nyambene hills. The landscape is deep green from recent rains. The sky is filled with birdsong and there is wildlife everywhere.
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Helmeted guinea-fowl scuttle into the undergrowth. Rare Grevy’s zebra gallop away at the sound of our vehicle. Three elephants stand at the side of the track, trunks raised, their broad backs streaked red with iodised earth.
Will’s ornithological knowledge is impressive. He points out flocks of red-billed quelea, red-necked francolins, Eurasian rollers, a Pel’s fishing owl and Von Der Decken’s hornbill. Swallows dip and spin alongside our Land Rover like tiny outriders. A hawk spins upwards on a thermal.
Elsa’s grave lies in a shady glade on the bank of the Ura River, close to the Adamsons’ former campsite in the southeast corner of the park. The midday sun casts a silver sheen on the water. The air is thick with the scent of wild basil. Weaver bird nests hang from the boughs of acacia trees like grass lanterns and hundreds of white butterflies flicker in the air like confetti. It is a mesmerizing place. We spend a moment under a fig tree where Joy used to paint while Elsa draped herself along its boughs.
Lion experts worldwide are now in agreement that without a concerted conservation effort, the species won’t survive in the wild in Africa. In 2015, a collaborative project named Lion Rover was launched by the Born Free Foundation, Kenya Wildlife Service, Land Rover and the local Meru community. The project aims to build a viable population of lions in Meru, and ensure that they are free to live here for generations to come.
Lion Rover’s first priority is to conduct thorough research into lion numbers. “We have to know how many lions there are in order to manage them and implement a conservation plan,” says Tim Oloo.
Tracking the future of lions
The census uses multiple methods: one is a spoor (tracks) survey, which is based on the principle that there is a direct relationship between spoor frequencies and the number of lions. To demonstrate to Will how the spoor survey works, we drive to an area where lions have been seen. There, an official tracker installed in the spotter seat raises his hand off the front bumper of the Land Rover.
There, in the sandy red earth, are the pads of a large lion print. The margins of the print are still sharp, showing that the tracks are reasonably fresh. The lion was moving east, and passed this way only a few hours earlier. “George Adamson used to say that studying the animal prints he found every morning in the tracks around his camp in Meru was like reading a newspaper,” says Will.
Lion Rover’s census is also using a ‘call-back’ method. This works by broadcasting at night the sound of a buffalo calf being killed by predators, from a loudspeaker on the roof of a Land Rover. The aim is to lure the lions towards the vehicle in order to count and photograph them. The amplification instrument is calibrated for the distance to which lions would respond. In Meru, this is set to ensure that every lion within a 2.5 km radius of the site reacts to the sounds.
The sun is lowering so we drive in the direction of Mughwango Hill, where the beautiful lodge, Elsa’s Kopje, has been seamlessly sculpted into the granite promontory. At twilight we drive to George’s Pool, where George Adamson used to swim in a rain water-filled hollow, high on a crag.
There are no lions here today, and it is quiet but for the sound of clucking hornbills and the distant crashing of a lone elephant through commiphora thicket. “Near our camp there were rocky ridges… in the late afternoon the sun turned the country into a blaze of warm colours, then she blended in to the reddish stone as though she were a part of it,” wrote George.
The bluff affords us extraordinary views over the volcanic plains to Kora, where George Adamson continued his work with big cats. “He was like a lightning conductor. He found a way of tapping into something else, and he passed it on to us,” says Will. “The true story of Elsa’s journey to freedom inspires everything we do.”
The census estimated that as many as 79 lions may be living in and around Meru National Park. “The estimate is encouraging as it shows that Meru is an important and viable stronghold,” says Will.
“The next phase will involve the profiling of individual prides, working out their home ranges and maintaining a robust database,” he continues. “This will involve collaring Meru lions. Then, in three years’ time, the next Lion Rover census will tell us how effective our efforts have been.”
For more information about the Born Free Foundation, or to adopt a lion, please visit www.bornfree.org.uk
Plan your safari in Kenya
Aptly named, and with a passion for the environment, Elsa’s Kopje can be credited with single-handedly saving this beautiful National Park. It now boasts a Gold Eco-Rating and an international Silver Level Certification with Sustainable Travel International. The flagship lodge of this iconic East African destination, it recently joined the prestigious Elewana Collection and is an unshamedly romantic boutique lodge.
Leopard Rock Lodge is a five star luxury lodge in one of the most beautiful and untouched parks in Kenya. Each of their 15 romantic cottages is there to offer you the most pleasurable, relaxing and luxurious holiday in the bush.
In Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
Sirikoi is a family-run, award winning eco-lodge surrounded by the haunting beauty of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy on the northern slopes of Mt Kenya. The area has an abundance of wildlife, including endangered species such as black rhino, white rhino and Grevy’s zebra. Sirikoi offers fabulous comfort, unmatched wildlife viewing and world class gourmet food. The area is malaria free and has a beautiful spring-like climate almost year round.
Ekorian’s Mugie Camp is the family base of Josh and Donna Perrett, who own, manage and host the camp with a small team of staff and their two young children, dogs and cats. The camp is simply designed with six spacious tents raised on wooden decks under thatched roofs. The camp is set in an exclusive location in the heart of the Mugie Conservancy in north-west Laikipia, where game and birdlife are prolific.
Porini Rhino Camp is a small and intimate eco-camp located in a secluded valley within the famous Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Consisting of just seven spacious and luxurious safari tents, the camp offers guests a unique eco experience designed to minimise environmental impact – and maximise the wilderness experience.
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In Maasai Mara
At Mara Bushtops, you can watch from your own 100 square metre private deck as an abundance of wildlife congregates around the adjacent salt lick. Having your butler draw your hot tub after a spectacular game drive is heavenly. Delving into the well-stocked wine cellar and enjoying superb cooking simply adds to the magic. Together, these experiences create an oasis of five-star luxury, blending peace with adventure.
The award-winning Porini Mara Camp is located in a beautiful setting, under the shade of yellow-barked Acacia trees on the banks of the Laetoli River. Comprised of just six spacious and luxury tents, the camp has an insatiable exclusive and luxury feel – and is the only non-seasonal safari camp set in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy.
Porini Lion Camp offers guests the opportunity to escape from the tourist trail on an authentic safari adventure. This award-winning, eco-friendly camp guarantees an immersive experience in a pristine and untouched wilderness.
Kicheche Mara Camp is a classic tented camp hidden in a beautiful acacia valley overlooking the Olare Orok stream. With only eight tents, the intimate and relaxed atmosphere gives you the opportunity to enjoy a unique experience in the prime wildlife area of the Mara North Conservancy.
The small and intimate Porini Bush Camp offers an authentic wilderness experience – so much so that they’ve pioneered a model of 700 acres of wilderness for every tent. This genuine mobile camp operates during the Wildebeest Migration each year, and is the perfect location to base yourself for this memorable safari.
Porini Amboseli Camp is set in a private conservation area within the Selenkay Conservancy. This award-winning camp ensures the best possible game viewing away from the tourist buzz. Comprised of ten luxury tents, it retains all the charm of the original mobile safari camps of yesteryear.
Savour the thrill of camping right in the heart of the bush, on the doorstep of Kenya’s capital at Porini Nairobi Tented Camp. With sweeping plains on the one side and Nairobi city on the other, there’s nowhere else iin the world like it.
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About the author
Joanna Eede is a writer and storyteller with a passion for telling emotive stories about the wonders of the natural world. She develops stories for features, books, film, speeches, photo-stories, photographic exhibitions and web content.
Joanna’s features has been published in leading newspapers and magazines, including National Geographic, The Times, BBC Wildlife, The Observer, Condé Nast, Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Paris Match, El Mundo, The Atlantic and many others.
Joanna has created and edited collaborative, crowd-sourced anthologies in collaboration with leading charities and publishers, designed to engage audiences with the natural world, including ‘We are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples’ (for Survival International, published by Quadrille, 2009, translated into 4 languages), and ‘Portrait of England’ (for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, published by Think Publishing, 2006).
She has a regular National Geographic ‘Voices’ blog on which she writes about natural history, wild places, wildlife conservation and indigenous cultures.