Dec 4, 2022

Mawazo Writing Africa

Writing about the main

Farewell to the last of the lion-whisperers of East Africa

The conservation community mourns the loss of Tony Fitzjohn, a conservationist who spent two decades in Kenya raising lions and leopards in Kora National Park in the east of the country.

Up until his death in a Los Angeles hospital on Monday Fitzjohn was arguably the last of a dying breed of conservationists to dedicate their lives to protecting and restoring African wildlife.

His pioneering conservation work has been the subject of several award-winning films and documentaries, including The Leopards of Kora, a 1982 wildlife documentary about the release of two leopards into the Kora wilderness; To walk with Lions, a 1999 film detailing the struggle to save Kenya’s wildlife; and Born to be Wild, a BBC documentary released in 1999 about the relocation of an elephant named Nina after 27 years in captivity to the Mkomazi Game Reserve in northeast Tanzania on the Kenyan border.

< p >Sir Fitzjohn is best known in Kenya for the 18 years he spent helping the late George Adamson, the internationally renowned conservationist of Born Free fame, to rehabilitate and return lions to the wild at Kora.

In Tanzania , he transformed Mkomazi, a severely degraded game reserve, into an international conservation beacon before handing it over to Tanzanian authorities in 2020 – teeming with all manner of wildlife, including migratory herds of 600 elephants.

For his work, Fitzjohn has been awarded the Order of the British Empire, OBE, and the Prince Bernhard Medal for Conservation. His camp at Mkomazi was visited by royalty, celebrities and conservationists who admired and supported his efforts.

According to Bob Marshall Andrews, chairman of the London-based George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, Fitzjohn, 76, died. while undergoing treatment in Los Angeles.

“He died of pneumonia on Monday night following a prolonged battle with a malignant brain tumor that was diagnosed in Kenya in August last year,” Mr Andrews told < em>The EastAfrican by phone.

He said Fitzjohn had two delicate medical surgeries, one in London and the other in Los Angeles, to remove the tumor, but he succumbed to pneumonia .

Fitzjohn is survived by his wife Lucy, who was lying by his bedside in hospital, and four children.

The Trust has suggested he be flown to Kenya to see him to be buried next to his mentor Adamson in Kora.

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Fitzjohn was one of the great conservationists of his generation. Born in England, he spent 18 years as a young man with the legendary Adamson in Kora.

“His outstanding achievement was the restoration of Tanzania’s vast Mkomazi Game Reserve,” read a statement released by the George Adamson Wildlife Trust praising him. “This was done in 1989 at the invitation of the Tanzanian government.”

Fitzjohn’s restless spirit, fueled by an abiding passion for the wilderness, showed itself at the age of 22 when he took on the risky job his previous owner just became killed by a lion.

After school he quit a job as a management trainee in London to first become a nightclub bouncer, then a truck driver in South Africa before traveling to Kenya where he met Mrs Joy Adamson met who connected him with George.

As the title of his memoir Born Wild suggests, Fitzjohn seems to have been born a bit rough and with an innate cynicism towards authority, especially when he felt his rights were being abused.

His deportation from Kenya in 1988 and the death of Mr Adamson at the hands of Shifta bandits the following year was a turning point in his life and culminated in harassment by the police and hunting authorities.

On several occasions he was arrested, beaten and charged in court, in a ca The campaign aimed to thwart their conservation work and force them out of the park.

Fitzjohn believed Adamson was assassinated to stop his conservation work, which had gained worldwide support because some people were benefiting from a chaotic kora.

He cites an incident in August 1987 when he was in Mwingi, Kitui County, was arrested and driven hundreds of kilometers to Hola, Tana River County, where he was accused of trafficking in wild animals and running a tourist camp without a permit.

“It was a ridiculous nightmare,” he said. “I lived in a cage with a leopard that wouldn’t even let my girlfriend near me, let alone a tourist. I had no choice but to plead guilty to the charges and pay the fines.”

In another incident, he was arrested by known rangers and beaten in front of his staff. The rangers accused him of entering Kora but knew he was Adamson’s assistant. His permission to keep leopards at Kora was revoked by the Kenya Wildlife Service and he fled to Tanzania in 1988 after it became apparent the government then wanted him out, leaving his aging mentor alone and subject to attack. The following year, on August 20, Adamson, who had put Kenya on the global conservation map by pioneering the rehabilitation of orphaned lions in the 1970s, was shot dead by bandits linked to the Shifta movement in north-eastern Kenya.

< p>In Tanzania, at the age of 45, Fitzjohn decided to marry an ex-nun named Lucy, who was 22 years his junior. They had four children, Alexander, Jemima, and twins Imogen and Tilly.

He then established a base in Mkomazi, a neglected game reserve which he transformed from a wilderness into a national park, including setting up the infrastructure an airstrip, roads, dams, electricity and water.

It was awarded the prestigious OBE by the Queen of England in 2006 for its rhino sanctuary and program for the breeding and release of endangered African wild dogs.

“When I moved to Tanzania I was 45 years old but had no house, no car, no children and my relationship with my girlfriend was crumbling. Devastated by Adamson’s death, I had to reassess what I wanted to achieve,” he says in his memoir.

In Mkomazi, which borders Tsavo National Park, there was the problem of sport hunting. But poachers continued to kill elephants, dump their carcasses by the side of the road, and drive away lions and other animals.

Later, Tony, as he is affectionately known in conservation circles, accepted an invitation from Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu to return to Kenya to help rebuild the world famous lion camp in Kora and bring back the wild cats.

In one of his interviews with Nation.Africa at his mentor’s grave in Kora Wild, r. Fitzjohn, revealed his deeply personal struggle with guilt and anger over the brutal murder of Adamson and the subsequent collapse of the Lion Project.

“Going back to Kora would be a meaningful homecoming for me. It’s a very magical place. It still hits me right between the eyes every time I go there,” he told Nation.Africa at the time.

Upon his return, he planned the Adamsons’ camp rebuild it – that was burned down with the Shifta Bandits – and keep it as a museum.

He recalled with amusement his early days in the vast wilderness of the Kora, his incredibly close bond with the big cats and the horrific incident in 1975 when he was there being attacked by a lion.

They had no painkillers in the bush except for some ancient veterinary syrup and he could not swallow anything as blood flowed from gaping holes in his throat . Worse, the doctors didn’t show up until the next morning.

It took several painful weeks in the Nairobi hospital before Fitzjohn was on his feet to resume work in Kora.

“Kora was a tough school,” he recalled, “but it made me an expert at capturing, cuddling, raising and returning Africa’s finest predators to the wild.”

According to him life in the wild was simple, remote, and isolated from the outside world. They subsisted on corned beef and canned peas most of the time.

In Kenya, Fitzjohn and Adamson released more than 30 lions and 10 leopards back into the wild.

Despite the remote location, The project had many visitors including journalists, researchers and people just looking for a desire to escape or adventure.

Although he considered the lion attack his best shave yet, it was not a high price he paid had to have paid for the privilege of living with wild animals since 1971.

Fitzjohn has always shied away from praise for his accomplishments. His hopes for the future were the same as he had been all his life: to live in Africa surrounded by wildlife, with more animals to talk to than people.