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Elsa’s Grave, the Resting Place of a Proud Lioness

Updated on September 18, 2013

The human race has been able to survive for millennia due to its ability to culturally adapt. Humans are able to re-adjust to new environments, and create technologies for the production of ever more food for their survival. This is not the case with animals because their adaptation is biological and easily smothered by human needs to the extent that wildlife will one day cease to exist. There is a race against time for animals whose very survival is drawing to a close. Against this background are relationships which humans have with animals, some based on physical survival for both species, some based on predatory behavior, others on economic dependence, and yet others on psychological dependence. This latter relationship can be said to be a combination of an ecologistic, humanistic, as well as a moralistic attitude in that the overriding concerns are how animals interact with other animals, an affection for the animals, and the view that animals deserve to be treated with dignity.

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Meru National Park, Kenya
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Elsa was laid to rest in Meru National Park in 1961

Not many human beings are so charitable but two conservationists took into their care a lion cub whose very survival was in peril. Through the care of Joy and George Adamson, Elsa the Lioness lived from 1956 to 1961. The story of Elsa has been recounted in books, documentaries, songs, and movies, but at the Meru National Park, her grave resides as a permanent reminder to Kenyans and tourists of her role in the conservation of wildlife, and the importance of human-wildlife co-existence.

Elsa's Grave
Elsa's Grave | Source

Elsa the Lioness

Imagine you are a lion cub walking in the bushes of Northern Kenya with your siblings and mother in tow. Then suddenly, a gun-shot rings out and your mother goes down. Slowly, creeping towards you emerges the figure of a bearded man pointing the business end of a rifle. This is the scenario that unfolded in 1956 when George Adamson, a game warden in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, drove his Land-Rover to the rescue of a friend who had been captured by bandits. Somewhere along the way, he disembarked to finish the journey on foot when he came face to face with a lioness and its cubs. Taking the warden’s presence as a threat, the lioness charged the warden but was stopped by a heavy caliber bullet from George Adamson’s rifle. It died on the spot, leaving behind three cubs which stood around bewildered and helpless.

Joy with "Elsa", “Lustica” and “Big One”
Joy with "Elsa", “Lustica” and “Big One” | Source

Left with no choice, George Adamson took the cubs under his care, but it was his wife Joy who formed the strongest bond with one of the cubs. She named the cuddly 3 day-old cub Elsa, and her two older sisters “Lustica” and “Big One”. The two older cubs were eventually dispatched to a zoo in Rotterdam because of their aggressiveness, leaving Elsa in the care of the Adamson’s. It was love at first sight, and a relationship that endured over many years. Joy Adamson had in the past suffered three miscarriages, and the attention she gave Elsa can only be equaled to that one gives to their child. They played together, fed together, and took walks in the bush together. Finally, Joy realized that she could not live with Elsa forever and therefore begun to instruct her on how to fend for herself in the African wilderness. This was in preparation for her eventual release, to live free in the wild.

Joy and George with Elsa
Joy and George with Elsa | Source
Elsa | Source

The Story of Elsa the Lioness

Releasing Elsa into the wild was not an easy decision for the Adamson’s. They had become very fond of the cub, particularly Joy. Elsa’s first initiation into the Maasai Mara Reserve was very traumatic as she became quite ill. After she had recovered, another attempt was made to let her loose in the then Meru Reserve in 1958. George and Joy Adamson stayed away for a week and were delighted to find that Elsa had been able to fend for herself in their absence, even make the acquaintance of other lions. Over the coming months, the Adamson’s kept tabs on the cub, and two years later, Elsa appeared at their doorstep with three cubs which they happily named Jespah, Gopa, and Little Elsa.

The Movie about Elsa and Her Cubs

Elsa's Final Resting Place
Elsa's Final Resting Place | Source

Right from the beginning it was clear that Elsa wanted Joy to play with and befriend her cubs, but Joy knew there was a danger in domesticating them. As the cubs grew older they became more aggressive and a concern to the farmers. There were constant complaints about Elsa and her cubs, and demands that they should be moved. As Joy was busy making arrangements with the authorities to move them, Elsa contacted a tick-borne blood disease and died in the arms of a tearful George Adamson. Jespah, Gopa, and Little Elsa were eventually relocated to the Serengeti National Park, but their mother, Elsa, was buried in Meru National Park. Her descendants now roam the vast Serengeti plains. Through the compelling story of Elsa, her cubs, and the Adamson’s, it is now known that wild animals have an individual psyche, and are capable of showing love and affection.


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