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Born Free--The Story of a Lioness

Updated on July 26, 2016

A special lioness, a credit to her kind

One of my favorite animal stories of all time is the story of Elsa the Lioness, the subject of the books Born Free, Living Free, and Forever Free. These books inspired me to write about animals in the same way that its author, Joy Adamson did. The books tell the story of how a couple raised an orphaned lion cub and, trained her to live in the wild, and released her. But, the story doesn't end there. Elsa continued her friendship with Joy and her husband, George, throughout her life and even had cubs of her own.

Joy and George Adamson made a lot of mistakes while trying to restore Elsa's life in the wild. Afterall, it was the 1950s and this was the first time anyone's been successful in releasing a lion back into the wild up to that point. However, as time went on, the Adamsons learned and corrected their mistakes to not only help Elsa and other lions, but other wildlife. Adamson's books helped people realize that lions are not just programmed killing machines, but feeling creatures with their own preferences, problems, and personality.

The photo of the lioness in this module was provided by Paul Mannix from Flickr.

The First Book: Born Free

Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds
Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds

This is the first book of the Born Free trilogy. In it, Joy Adamson describes how she and her husband, George, acquired three cubs, sent two to a zoo, and kept the third, Elsa. Releasing Elsa wasn't on their mind when they decided to keep her. But, it was soon determined that a "house lion" wasn't a good pet and they were depriving her of her natural life. They then set on training and releasing her into the wild only to have her remain friends with the people who raised her.

The book became an instant hit around the world soon after it was released. Eventually, it was released in several languages with different covers. Some books have more photographs in it than others and it's worth checking out the earliest editions if possible.

The book is easy to read and suitable for all ages. There are some parts of the book that deals with hunting (by both humans and animals) and poaching that some may disturb some people. The Adamsons were of an era where big game hunting was still big business in Kenya and game was still fairly plentiful.


Early video of Elsa and her two sisters

This is the only known video taken by an Isiolo police officer of his son playing with Elsa, Lustica, and the "Big One". At that time, Joy Adamson didn't have her own video camera.

Lioness with cubs, Source: Imagin Extra via Flickr
Lioness with cubs, Source: Imagin Extra via Flickr | Source

Living Free

In Joy Adamson's second book, Living Free, she describes anxiously waiting the arrival of Elsa's cubs which were born while Joy Adamson is out of the country trying to publish her book, Born Free. Elsa brings her cubs right into camp and up to the Adamsons who decide to keep their distance so that the cubs remain as wild as possible. One cub, Jespah, particularly captures Joy's heart and becomes her favorite. The other male cub, Gopa, is less friendly and Little Elsa is they shiest of all.

In the meantime, the Adamsons are facing a challenge with Elsa getting in fights with other lions. It turns out that they released her in another pride's territory and the resident lioness wasn't happy about it. Elsa would often arrive in camp with wounds from fighting. At that time, the Adamsons didn't know about lion territories and prides. They thought that Elsa would join up with a pride not knowing that prides are exclusively made up of related females and their young and do not accept outsiders except the adult males that will become their mates. It was one of the mistakes that they had to learn from in order to help lions in the future.

The photo in this module was provided by Imagine Extra via Flickr.

The Second Book, Living Free

Living Free
Living Free

Living Free is the sequel to Born Free and continues the story of Elsa the lioness. Beginning with the epilogue from Born Free, Elsa brings her cubs into camp and the family become regular residents. Joy Adamson is determined to keep the cubs at a distance so that they will remain wild. However, one cub, Jespah, was fairly tame and friendly. Even though Joy tried her best not to interact with him, he wouldn't take no for an answer and quickly became her favorite. Gopa, the other male cub was less tame and the female cub, Little Elsa was the most wild of all.

By the time this book was published, Elsa was fast becoming a world phenomena. Many people were fascinated with the fact that a human and a lioness can become friends, yet hunt and behave like a wild lion otherwise.

I like to recommend early editions, if possible, because they usually have the most illustrations or photographs and are often closest to what the author wanted. This particular edition is the 1991 edition from Fontana Press.

Lion Cub silhouettes Source: Mara 1 on Flickr
Lion Cub silhouettes Source: Mara 1 on Flickr | Source

Forever Free

Elsa the lioness unexpectantly dies before her cubs are fully able to take care of themselves. As a result, the cubs become a nuisance and begin killing the local livestock. One of them, Jespah, receives an arrow to his hindquarters of which the head becomes completely embedded. Luckily, it was a child's arrow and was not poisonous. Measures are taken to remove the cubs from Meru, the park that they were born in Kenya, and release them into the Serengeti in Tanzania. They have a hard time capturing all three cubs at once and it takes quite a while to do so.

After the cubs are finally captured, they are driven 632 miles their final location. They stay near where they were released, at first. However, the park officials had made it difficult for the Adamsons to stay and look after them. They were forced to move out of the park and become a standard park tourist instead of having the special privileges they used to have. After they left, the cubs pretty much disappeared. The Adamsons did find them from time to time, at first, but, eventually, it got to the point that they were never seen again. George Adamson was sure that he, at least, saw Little Elsa near a pride, though, much later. There is one report on another website that Jespah was speared by an African, but there is no confirmation of that. A lion that fit the description of Jespah was reported to the Adamsons many months after they left the Serengeti, but they never saw him.

The photo in this module was provided by Mara 1 on Flickr.

Forever Free by Joy Adamson

Forever Free - The story of Elsa's cubs
Forever Free - The story of Elsa's cubs

This is the final book of the Born Free series. In this part of the story, after Elsa's unexpected death from Tick Fever, her three cubs are forced to live on their own. Because they are not full grown, they have difficulty finding food on their own and begin to cause problems for the surrounding communities. After many tries to capture them, are shipped off to the Serengeti.

When the cubs disappear not long after being released, the Adamsons spend many days searching for them, hoping for glimpses. Was that Jespah or Little Elsa they saw? What happened to Gopa?

One of the problems the Adamsons had was that the Serengeti was not a game park and not in Kenya where many of the wildlife officials had a friendship with George Adamson. The Adamsons got no special treatment other than the fact that they were allowed to camp in areas not usually open to the public. After some time, the officials there lost their tolerance with the couple and they were not allowed to stay in the park any longer. Though they came back as a regular visitor, they had a hard time tracking the cubs and only saw them a couple of times later.

At the very least, you will learn about the animals and conditions of the Serengeti in the early 1960s when this book was written.

Lions posing Source: Blieusong on Flickr
Lions posing Source: Blieusong on Flickr | Source

Born Free and Living Free: The Movies

In 1964, production began on the movie version of Born Free starring Bill and Virginia Travers. Most of the consulting and lion handling was done by George Adamson along with other lion trainers. Joy Adamson had little to do with the production as she was deemed to be very difficult to handle. At one time, she was even banned from the set. George took care of all the lions' needs and was the main go-to guy about the accuracy of the film to the original story. The movie premiered in 1966.

After the filming was over, George took in as many of the lion actors as he could so that he could rehabilitate them into the wild. He essentially, set up a makeshift pride consisting of his favorite lion, Boy, Ugas, and Boy's sister, Girl among others. Later, George Adamson acquired more lions including Katania the lion cub and the famous Christian the Lion.

In 1972, a sequel was produced called "Living Free" which starred Nigel Davenport and Susan Hampshire. However, this movie was actually based on the book "Forever Free" and was not quite as good as the movie Born Free.

The photo in this module is provided by Blieusong on Flickr.

Born Free on DVD

Born Free
Born Free

This is a must for all Born Free lovers and is the original movie that made Elsa the Lioness a household name. It tells the story of Elsa as chronicled in the book. A game warden kills Elsa's mother in self-defense, but rescues the cubs to be raised by him and his wife. They then try to find a way to release her back into the wild.

I feel that they glossed over a lot of the important aspects of the book, though this is common with movies based on a book. I wished they had chosen to film near a river because that's where they lived while they were trying to re-acclimate Elsa into the wild.


Living Free, the Movie

Living Free
Living Free

This movie actually follows the final of the three books "Forever Free". For me, it was a big mistake to totally skip over the second book, "Living Free". In my opinion, they should have combined the two books to make this movie. The last thing we saw in the movie, "Born Free" was Elsa arriving in camp with her three cubs. But, in the beginning of "Living Free", Elsa is dying and her cubs are half grown. Also, unlike the real story, the cubs appear to be only less than a year old when they were actually about 15 months old when Elsa died and beginning to participate on hunts in real life. So, that affects the credibility of the story. Also, the Adamson's relationship was not realistic, either.

Nonetheless, if you want to complete the story of Elsa the Lioness in film, this is not a bad thing to watch. Much of the cinematography is beautiful and it's fun to watch all the mistakes the cubs make while on their journey.

George Adamson
George Adamson

After Born Free

After the production of Born Free, George and Joy Adamson, more or less, separated. This is partially because they were working on two different projects. Joy was working with cheetahs and George continued working with lions which were incompatible with each other. Though they saw each other from time to time, they were never like the married couple they once were while they were dealing with Elsa.

Joy wrote two books about a cheetah named Pippa and her four broods of cubs. Then, she moved on to a leopard named Penny for a few years and also moved from Meru reserve to Shaba reserve. While at Shaba, she got into a dispute with one of her workers who murdered her in 1980.

George continued on working with the Born Free lions as well as other lions he had acquired since the movie. His brother Terrance, joined him and began setting up a camp to work with leopards. George became an advocate on wildlife conservation and preservation and often discussed the environmental destruction happening around him in media interviews. He began to notice the decline of lions and other animals and prophesied that, eventually, there will be no more lions left. In 1989, George Adamson was killed by bandits while trying to protect a friend from being raped. He is buried next to his favorite lion, Boy and his brother, Terrance, who had died a few years earlier.

The photo of George Adamson in this module is from Wikimedia Commons from Granville Davies

Elsa's Legacy

There was recently a show on PBS Nature that highlighted Elsa's life and her contribution to her kind. It had actual footage taken by the Adamson's. Virginia Travers, one of the stars of the movie version of Born Free, was interviewed while visiting Elsa's grave. David Attenborough, who filmed a BBC story of Elsa (and was greeted by her when she sat on him while he was in his bunk), is also interviewed. This is a must-see for any Adamson or Elsa fans. You can watch it for free by clicking on the link below.

Videos on George and Joy Adamson's work

Here are some videos of George and Joy Adamson's work including segments of the movie, Born Free, A Lion named Christian, and other specials with the couple. Some of the quality may be poor due to the fact that all of these were shot on film between the late 1950s and the late 1980s.

Other items on George and Joy Adamson and their work

Here is a small list of my favorite items about George and Joy Adamson. I have personally read and viewed each one of them.

My Pride and Joy
My Pride and Joy

The story of George Adamson's life and his work with lions and his relationship with his wife. Here, you see the Born Free Story from George's point of view and learn about what happened to the lions who played in the Born Free movies.

Mr. Adamson does a good job about describing things behind the scenes and even gives a couple updates about Elsa's cubs that are not in his wife's books. In all, this book is a great read about an a very unique individual.

The Great Safari: Lives of George and Joy Adamson
The Great Safari: Lives of George and Joy Adamson

If you want a fair, balanced biography from someone who actually knew them, this is the book you want. It's not sugar coated, but it's not full of blatant lies, slanders and one-sidedness that is present in many other biographies about this couple.

A complete biography from their births to their deaths and everything in-between is listed in this book. You may learn about how they met and what their marriage was like in addition to their views on wildlife and Africa in general.


The Adamsons' charities

Both George and Joy Adamson set up funds to start and support their own charities to protect and preserve the wildlife of Africa.

Christian: The Lion at World's End
Christian: The Lion at World's End

The famous lion that everyone saw on YouTube stars in this video about his life as a London pet to his release in the wild with the help of George Adamson. Christian's life is chronicled from a young age until he finally disappears into the wild as a full-grown lion.


Your comments welcome!

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    • Sir Daniel UK profile image

      Danny Gibson 

      4 years ago from Northampton

      Skillfully done lens about a story we all adore.

    • sierradawn lm profile image

      sierradawn lm 

      5 years ago

      I found your lens delightfully excellent! "Born Free" influenced so much of my life!

    • shilohtaylor profile image


      5 years ago

      My favorite movie as a child was Born Free

    • amosvee profile image


      5 years ago

      The Adamsons' books were favorites of mine. I've never seen the video of baby Elsa before. Thank you!

    • Craftypicks profile image

      Lori Green 

      5 years ago from Las Vegas

      When I was a child I cried my eyes out even listening to the Born Free song. Then again I got upset at the Eensy Weensy Spider until the song said it went up the spout again.

    • Shorebirdie profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from San Diego, CA

      @Glen Kowalski: I agree and I think their presence actually got some publicity for the park and increased visitors there. They were there at the time when Born Free was a bestseller and sold worldwide.

    • Glen Kowalski profile image

      Glen Kowalski 

      5 years ago

      I remember reading the first book when I was younger, now I'll have to look for the other two. A shame the Serengeti management wouldn't work with the Adamsons.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      This gives memory lane a new meaning thank you so much

    • newmorningdews profile image


      5 years ago

      awesome awesome awesome

      Born FREE ....

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very nice story. Congrats!

    • LynetteBell profile image


      6 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Thanks for sharing this wonderful story

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I think the legacy of Elsa should remain alive, it's a wonderful story. I never heard of it before today. A great lesson that humans should learn. Be willing to accept someone for who they are, not because of the way or where they were born, it's not their fault. Upon acceptance, they probably will make a great edition to the club! Thanks for sharing.

    • ismeedee profile image


      6 years ago

      My grandmother absolutely adored the story of Elsa and she read Born Free to me when I was young. Glad you've made this tribute lens!

    • Pam Irie profile image

      Pam Irie 

      6 years ago from Land of Aloha

      I loved this movie when it came out. It was the first movie of its kind that I remember to have struck such a chord with me.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I was hypnotized by the movie when it came out. It had such an incredible impact upon me. Thanks for this trip down memory lane.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      6 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      I can still remember going to watch the Movie as a child and being inspired by it. I still avidly watch those kind of documentaries. This is a great lens that brings the story back for another generation. Well done

    • rob-hemphill profile image

      Rob Hemphill 

      6 years ago from Ireland

      As a small boy living in Kenya, I can remember my parents talking about the Adamsons and their lioness, Elsa. The three books and films made such an impact on many people, and it was sad that Joy and George parted company and both met tragic ends.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Lovely lens, it is such a same Joy and George's lives came to a brutal end.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      A heartwarming lens. This is an exceptional story.

    • Fcuk Hub profile image

      Fcuk Hub 

      6 years ago

      great lens :)


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