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

Saturday May 28 2022
Tony Fitzjohn.

Tony Fitzjohn. PHOTO | COURTESY


The wildlife conservation community is mourning Tony Fitzjohn, a conservationist who spent two decades in Kenya rearing lions and leopards at the Kora National Park in the east of the country.

Until his death in a Los Angeles hospital on Monday, Fitzjohn was arguably the last of a dying breed of conservationists, who devoted their lives to the protection and restoration of Africa’s wildlife.

His pioneering conservation work is the subject of several award-winning movies and documentaries, including The Leopards of Kora, a 1982 wildlife documentary about the release of two leopards into the Kora wild; To walk with Lions, a 1999 film that details the fight to save Kenya’s wildlife; and Born to be Wild, a BBC documentary released in 1999 about the translocation of an elephant named Nina to the Mkomazi Game Reserve in northeastern Tanzania on the Kenyan border after 27 years in captivity.

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

In Tanzania, he transformed Mkomazi, a heavily degraded game reserve, into an international beacon of conservation before handing it over to the Tanzanian authorities in 2020 — rich in all species of wildlife, including migrating herds of 600 elephants.

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


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

“He died of pneumonia on Monday night after a prolonged fight against a malignant brain tumour diagnosed while in Kenya in August last year,’’ Mr Andrews told The EastAfrican by telephone.

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

Fitzjohn is survived by his wife Lucy, who was on his bedside at the hospital, and four children.

The Trust has proposed that he be flown to Kenya for burial next to his mentor, Adamson, at Kora.

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

“His main towering achievement was the rehabilitation of the huge Mkomazi Game Reserve in Tanzania,” read a statement released by the George Adamson Wildlife Trust eulogising him. “This was at the invitation of the Tanzanian Government in 1989.”

Fitzjohn’s restless spirit driven by an enduring passion for the wild was evident at the age of 22, when he accepted the risky job whose previous holder had just been killed by a lion.

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

As the title of his memoirs Born Wild suggests, Fitzjohn seems to have been born a bit rough and with an inherent cynicism about authority, particularly in cases when he felt his rights were abused.

His expulsion from Kenya in 1988 and the death of Mr Adamson at the hands of Shifta bandits the following year were a turning point in his life, culminating in harassment by police and game authorities.

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

Fitzjohn believed that Adamson was murdered to stop his conservation work, which had gained global approval because some people were benefiting from a chaotic Kora.

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

“It was a laughable 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 option but to plead guilty to the charges and pay the fines.”

In another incident, he was arrested by rangers who were known to him and beaten up as his staff watched. The rangers accused him of trespassing in Kora, yet they knew he was Adamson’s assistant. His permit to keep leopards in Kora was revoked by the Kenya Wildlife Service and he fled to Tanzania in 1988 after it became apparent that the government then wanted him out, leaving his ageing mentor alone and exposed to attacks. The following year, on August 20, Adamson, who had put Kenya on the global conservation map through his pioneering work of rehabilitating orphaned lions in the 1970s, was shot dead by bandits associated with the Shifta movement in northeastern Kenya.

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

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

His rhino sanctuary and the programme for breeding and releasing endangered African wild dogs saw him awarded the prestigious OBE by the Queen of England in 2006.

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

At Mkomazi, which borders Tsavo National Park, there was the problem of sport hunting. But still poachers were killing elephants, leaving their carcasses by the roadside and driving out lions and other animals.

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

In one of his interviews with Nation.Africa at the graveside of his mentor in the Kora wild, r Fitzjohn revealed his deeply personal struggle with guilt and anger at the brutal murder of Adamson and the subsequent collapse of the lion project.

“Going back to Kora would be a significant 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 then.

Upon return, he planned to restore the Adamson's camp — which was burnt down by the Shifta bandits — and preserve it as a museum.

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

They had no painkillers in the bush except some ancient veterinary syrup and he couldn't swallow anything, as blood kept pouring from gaping holes in the neck. Worse still, doctors wouldn't arrive until the next morning.

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

“Kora was a tough school,” he recalled, “but it made me an expert in capturing and cuddling Africa's top predators, as well as raising and returning them to the wild.”

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

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

Despite its remote setting, the project received many visitors, including journalists, researchers and people simply looking for an escape or adventure.

Even though he considered the lion attack his closest shave yet, it wasn’t a heavy price to have paid for the privilege of living with wild animals since 1971.

Fitzjohn always shunned praise for his achievements. His hopes for the future were much the same as they have been all his life: to live in Africa, surrounded by wildlife, with more animals than people to speak to.