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Attacked by a Lioness

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Thu, 07/16/2020 - 22:23

George Adamson and the Hunt for the Man-Eating Lion

Story 6 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century

Part One

George Adamson walked through the arid dust of the Kenyan bush with his loaded rifle in his hand. It was early morning and the sun was beginning to rise into a clear sky. He was alert for the smallest sound, the slightest hint that his quarry was near. He examined the ground for spoor, the traces that might have been left by the animal. He looked for paw prints, droppings, broken twigs, anything that might tell him that the beast had passed that way.

George was a game warden working for the Kenyan Game Department. That day he had Ken Smith with him. Smith had only recently joined the department. He would be relying on George to keep him safe and make sure he did not make any mistakes. As well as Smith, George also had a Kenyan game scout to assist him. The three of them walked on with their rifles at the ready.  The hunt was on for the man-eating lion.

The lion had killed a local tribesman in the past few days. They had to find it before it killed again. The scout led them to the area where the locals thought the lion laid up when it was not hunting for prey. George and his men edged slowly through the bush. There seemed to be no sign of a lion. Then, from behind some rocks, instead of a lion, a lioness appeared. It started to charge at Smith. They did not wish to shoot it, but it was too close for them to run away. And, in any case, the way back was through difficult terrain. They would never make it. Smith glanced at George. He knew Smith had no choice. He told him to shoot. Smith raised his rifle and fired. He hit the lioness, but she didn’t die. She hobbled away, and disappeared into the bush.

They followed in the direction she had gone and soon picked up a trail of blood. The spots of blood led up a hill. The lioness, as lions tend to do, was heading for higher ground. The men knew they were in great danger. A wounded animal can be ferocious and will do anything it can to survive. And the lioness had the advantage of the high ground. But where was she? Apart from the trail of blood there was nothing, not even a sound. Slowly they advanced, one step after another. Ahead of them was the ridge of the hill. She must be at the top. But when they reached the ridge there was nothing but a large flat rock.

George clambered up and looked around for any sign of the lioness. Then he heard a menacing growl. It had come from under the rock he was standing on. He looked down just in time to see the lioness leap out and race towards Smith. Smith managed to fire two shots, but they both missed. George raised his rifle to shoot as the lioness bore down on Smith. But Smith was directly behind the lioness in George’s line of fire. He dared not shoot for fear of hitting Smith. George watched in horror as the lioness charged at Smith.

Part Two

George Adamson was born in India in 1906. At that time India was part of the British Empire and both his parents were British. His father worked for the ruler of Dholpur State. This was one of many districts of India. The ruler was known as the Rajah. George’s father constructed the railways in Dholpur and later helped the Rajah to organize his army. In the summer the temperature in Dholpur was very hot and so his mother would take George and his younger brother, Terence, to the city of Shimla. This city is in the north of India in the foothills of the Himalayas.  It is cooler here and many British families would come to this city during the summer to escape the heat. The British rulers of India would also come here, staying at the impressive Vice-Regal Lodge.

One of the soldiers in the army taught George and Terence how to shoot a rifle. In those days it was common to shoot animals for food and for sport. From an early age George took an interest in hunting. As he grew older, his parents wanted George to go to an English school. He went to Dean Close School, a boarding school in Cheltenham. During his summer holidays he and his brother would often go to Scotland. While on holiday in the rugged Scottish countryside they would imagine what it would be like to hunt big game animals.

When George was eighteen his father retired and decided to move to Africa. He had intended to go to South Africa and George sailed there to live with him. But when George got to Cape Town, one of the main cities of South Africa, there was a telegram from his father. The message said that his parents were not coming to South Africa after all. The ship which his parents had travelled on had stopped on the way at Mombasa, a port of Kenya. His parents were so impressed with that country that they decided to live their instead. They had bought a coffee farm near the capital, Nairobi. So George headed back north and joined his parents in Kenya.

Kenya is a large country with varied scenery and climate. The area around Nairobi has quite a cool climate, especially near Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa.  To the west there are forests and the climate is warmer and more humid, particularly near Lake Victoria, which lies across the south-western border.  But in the northeast, the climate is arid and the landscape parched. But despite this the northeast has much wildlife. The many different animals included what hunters called the ‘Big Five’. These are lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards and rhinoceros.  They are called the ‘Big Five’ because they are difficult to catch and are very dangerous.

George and his brother, who came to Kenya a year later, enjoyed going out hunting for animals. They would mostly hunt small game such as antelope, but occasionally they would pay for a licence to hunt one of the ‘Big Five’. A local tribesman called Mosandu taught George how to track an animal by looking for spoor. He also taught him about the scent of animals and the sounds they make. George soon became an expert tracker.

George tried lots of different work. One of his first jobs involved the construction of roads. Other jobs he tried included farming, a milk round and selling insurance. He even tried gold prospecting, but with little success. His interest in finding gold led to an adventure in the northwest of the country.

He and a friend called Nevil, set out to find the legendary gold mines of the Queen of Sheba. These were said to be located on the shores of Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake. They paid someone to cook for them and to handle the donkeys carrying their supplies. For two months they followed a river which led to the lake, all the time looking out for gold. When they reached the lake they walked 240 kilometres around its southern end. They could not face returning on foot so, while their companion walked the donkeys back, they sailed across the lake. They did not have a boat so they had to make one. They used branches to make the frame of the boat, stretching canvas over the frame for its hull. It was a precarious voyage, but they managed to get to the other side.

In 1935 a company employed George to lead safaris. A safari is an expedition to study or hunt animals, usually in Africa. He and his assistants would take customers out in a truck to photograph and, if they had permission, hunt the wildlife. As well as the ‘Big Five’ they would photograph such animals as giraffe, zebras and gazelles. One evening, during a safari on the Serengeti plains, George saw a lioness basking on a rock in the evening sun. It made him think about hunting and how people often killed lions and other animals for no good reason apart from enjoyment. He began to think more about protecting animals rather than hunting them. In 1938 he had the opportunity to put his developing ideals into practice.

In 1938 George became a Temporary Assistant Game Warden working for the Kenyan Game Department. He was based in Isiolo which is located in the centre of Kenya on the southern reaches of the arid lands which stretch to the north. The Game Department had various roles. For example, it was responsible for issuing licences to those who wished to legally hunt particular animals. Another major aspect of its work was capturing and prosecuting poachers. These were people who killed animals without permission, often in a very cruel way. Sometimes animals, especially the ‘Big Five’, would cause damage to farmland, attack livestock and even people. When this happened the game wardens had no choice but to hunt and kill the animals. On one occasion, villagers reported attacks by man-eating lions. While walking near the village, George was attacked by a lioness. He managed to shoot it but did not kill it. Then his gun jammed. The lioness threw him to the ground and knocked him unconscious.  The lioness was probably too badly injured to kill him and slunk off. George was later found and flown to Nairobi for treatment.

During the early part of the Second World War, George was involved in Military Intelligence. The Allies were fighting against the Italians who had forces in an African country called Somaliland. He recruited Somalis to spy on the Italian enemy positions. Although the war continued until 1945, in this part of Africa things quietened down by 1942. By then the Allies had defeated the Italians in this region. So George requested to be released from his military duties and he returned to his work as a game warden.

The following year he married a lady called Joy. She was an Austrian who had moved to Kenya. She was a very talented artist and enjoyed finding and painting rare flowers. Later the Kenyan government paid her to paint pictures of tribesmen in their traditional dress. She loved animals and when George first met her she owned a cairn terrier.  When the terrier died she adopted a rock hyrax. She called it Pati. It looked a bit like a guinea pig.  During the coming years George and Joy went on many safaris. Sometimes they would go together and sometimes they would travel go on separate trips.

One day, in 1956, George received a message that a man-eating lion had killed one of the Boran tribesmen 200 kilometres to the north. It was also reported that the lion had two lionesses with him. It was George’s job to investigate and if possible find and shoot the lion. Joy decided to go with him. George, Joy and George’s colleagues drove north and set up camp near the village that had been attacked by the lion.

Both George and Joy knew that lions that can be very dangerous. During the day lions spend most of the time sleeping or just lazing in the sun. But when they choose to attack, often at night, they do so with speed and ruthless efficiency. They can run at up to eighty kilometres per hour and they can kill their prey with one bite to the neck after they have knocked the animal down.  Over a hundred men helping to build the railway from the port of Mombasa across the country to the Victoria Falls had been killed by lions. It was not uncommon for a villager to be dragged by a lion from their hut during the night to meet a gruesome end in the bush.

When George and his men were ready they got their rifles and climbed into the Land Rover. Joy had decided to remain at the camp, with just her pet rock hyrax, Pati, for company.  The Land Rover headed off across the thornbush trailing a cloud of dust behind it.

Part Three

The lioness charged as her hunting instinct took over. She was determined to kill her prey. And that prey was Smith. She was seconds away from leaping onto him. There was nothing George could do. It was just too risky to try and shoot the lioness. Then, just when all seemed lost, a shot rang out. It was the game scout who was standing more to the side and was able to shoot at the lioness without fear of hitting Smith. He hit the lioness, but still she did not die. But the force of the bullet made her swerve away from Smith. This was George’s chance. He took aim and fired. This time the lioness fell to the ground and lay still.

They approached the lioness with care in case she was still alive. But as they got near it was obvious that she had died. Then, as George walked up to the lioness he noticed something which shocked him. Her teats were enlarged and full of milk. George realized straightaway that she must have cubs. That’s why she had attacked them in the first place. She was bravely defending her young. Perhaps it was she who had killed the man in the village. George was upset, but he knew they now had to find the cubs. Without their mother they would have little chance of survival.

They searched the area, but found nothing.  Maybe the cubs had already been killed by some other animal. But George wasn’t going to give up looking. He was distraught at having killed the lioness. Of course, he had had to shoot her to save Smith.  But now he wanted to do all he could to help her family. But where were they? He searched and searched, but saw no sign of them. Then George heard a faint sound. It was coming from a crack in the rock. George put his arm down into the crack. He could not feel anything but he heard growling. He found a long stick and put that down the crack. He felt something take hold of it and he pulled the stick out. There, clinging to the end of it were three tiny lion cubs. They were all female and George reckoned they were only two or three-weeks-old. They could barely crawl and their eyes were still not properly open. George put them in the back of the Land Rover and headed back to camp.

Although it was sad that their mother had been killed, Joy was thrilled when she saw the cubs. Even Pati enjoyed snuggling up with them. George and Joy tried to get the cubs to drink milk by pouring it down a rubber tube. They hoped the cubs would suck on the tube as though it were their mother’s teat. At first they refused to drink, but then, after two days, they began to drink milk every two hours. The smallest cub was very courageous and would explore where the others feared to go. This was Joy’s favourite and she called her Elsa.

Part Four

Back at Isiolo George had arranged for an enclosure to be built next to their house so that the cubs had somewhere to stay where they would be safe. George and Joy knew that they would not be able to look after the cubs when they grew up. But for now they had to do everything they could to feed and care for them. As the three playful cubs became young lionesses George and Joy kept Elsa and sent the other two to Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands.

They took Elsa with them on safaris to get her used to other wild animals. After two years they would let her go off on her own, sometimes for several days. She was not yet able to kill an animal and George had to shoot animals for her to eat. When Elsa was at last ready to survive on her own they released her at Meru, an area near the place where she was born. By now she could kill for herself and she would not be seen for weeks at a time. One day, George and Joy heard Elsa calling to them by a nearby river. When they went to investigate they saw that she had three of her own cubs! It was a wonderful moment that George would never forget.

In late 1960 Elsa died from tick fever. George and Joy were very distressed, yet they looked after her cubs and released them into the Serengeti Reserve. In 1961 George retired from work, but stayed in Kenya to devote his life to looking after orphaned lions and then returning them to the wild. By this time Joy, who was working on her own projects in a separate home, had written the book Born Free which told the story of Elsa. This made George and Joy famous and many people came to know about their work. In 1966 a film of the book was made. The stars of the film, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, became great friends with George and Joy and they too took a great interest in wildlife conservation.

In 1970 George moved to a place called Kora where he lived for the rest of his life. George’s favourite lion was Boy, one of the lions used in the film. He would often come to George at his home. But in 1971 the lion killed an assistant working with George and George had to shoot him. Soon afterwards George was joined by Tony Fitzjohn who went on to work closely with George during the coming years.

Sadly, Joy was murdered in 1980 by a man who used to work for her. George continued his work with lions. He too died a violent death. He was shot by bandits in 1989.

Not everybody agreed with the approach used by George.  Some thought it was too dangerous and put the lives of people at risk. Also, was it right and fair to give lions such close contact with humans and then release them into the wild? But both he and Joy undoubtedly did a lot of good for the wildlife of Africa. Since George’s death others have continued his work, ensuring that lions and other animals are able to roam free in Africa.


A particularly helpful source was:

Adamson, G. (1986) My Pride and Joy: An Autobiography (London: Harvill Press).