Meru’s Lion Stars

When Joy Adamson wrote Born Free about her experience raising an orphaned lion cub called Elsa, few predicted the book would spend 13 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and go on to inspire a film that would become a worldwide hit.

Elsa, along with her two sisters, was orphaned when Joy’s husband, George Adamson, was forced to kill their mother in self-defence while tracking a man-eater. But unlike her siblings, who were sent to European zoos, Elsa, the weakest of the litter, was kept by the Adamsons, who then spent two years educating her in the ways of lions before successfully releasing her into the wilds of what is today Meru National Park.

The story of freed lions was not, unfortunately, always so simple, and one of Adamson's formerly captive lions, Boy, who starred in the movie, mauled Adamson's assistant to death; Adamson was forced to shoot the lion. Similar maulings occurred with other lions.

Even so, it was the success of Elsa’s rehabilitation that inspired John Rendall and Ace Bourke to have their own lion, Christian (www.alioncalledchristian.com), shipped to George Adamson’s camp in 1969 in the hope that he too could be returned to the wild. Christian was originally bought from Harrods department store and lived in a London basement below Rendall and Bourke's furniture shop. On learning that Christian had been successfully acclimatised, the men returned to Kenya and their reunion with Christian was filmed for a 1971 documentary.

More than 30 years later, edited footage of this reunion went viral on YouTube. It’s a real tear-jerker, especially the part when Christian first recognises his old friends and comes bounding down a rocky slope and literally leaps into their arms, almost knocking the men off their feet in a 150kg demonstration of furry lion love.