Nature “Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story”

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The year 2010 marks the 50 th anniversary of Joy Adamson's milestone book, Born Free, a book that forever changed the way we think about wildlife.   The dramatic story of Joy and George Adamson becoming surrogate parents of an orphaned lion cub named Elsa and her eventual release back into the wild sold millions of copies around the world, and the extraordinarily successful film based on the book went on to win two Academy Awards.   It was one of the earliest representations on film of animals as individuals, and had considerable repercussions in the world of conservation.   The idyllic story portrayed on film was far from reality.   Behind its romanticized depiction of Elsa and the Adamsons is the compelling story of the daring and controversial life two lovers of wildlife chose to live.   But it is also a celebration of how a simple act of kindness taught us all how to see animals in a brand new way.

Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story premieres Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011 at 8 p.m. on Eight, Arizona PBS .   Nature goes behind the scenes of Born Free to examine the genesis and aftermath of this landmark story.   The documentary takes viewers through challenges in making Born Free and the real-life drama of the Adamsons as pioneering conservationists.   Nature will revisit the people featured in the movie and discuss the importance and dangers of their revolutionary views about animals.   Illuminated by George Adamson's journal entries, archival home movies, and conversations with the Adamsons' close confidants, the film reveals shifting attitudes about conservation and their impact on lions in Africa.  

“This is an insider's look at the world's first environmental icon,” said Fred Kaufman, Series Executive Producer.   “There's no question that Elsa became an ambassador of wildlife preservation because of the Adamsons and Born Free .   Looking at Elsa's legacy, we're able to see wildlife protection then and now and how one animal made a world of difference.”

Published in 1960 and followed by a film and Academy Award-winning song of the same name in 1966, Born Free became a phenomenon that stimulated a worldwide interest in the plight of wild animals that still resonates today.   The many wildlife projects inspired by Born Free include the Elsa Conservation Trust, which propelled the Adamsons from maverick naturalists to global conservationists and the Born Free Foundation, founded by Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, stars of the film.

After the triumph of Born Free , the Adamsons continued to rehabilitate wild animals in need.   Joy worked with leopards while George continued with lions, including three of the 24 lions who played Elsa in the movie.

The Adamsons introduced the radical idea that wild animals should be treated as unique individuals and fostered the concept of saving lions by directly relating to them.   But the blissful bush paradise and Elsa's rehabilitation described in the book and film are misleading.   Lion biologist Craig Packer explains:   “The idea of putting a lion back in the wild is actually pretty scary for the lion because the wild is not a safe, happy place.   It's constant gang warfare… truly vicious and nasty.”  

The Adamsons' approach to working with lions, although successful, left people vulnerable to unpredictable attacks.   For instance, McKenna broke an ankle when a lion jumped on her during the film's pre-production.   But worse, a child was mauled and a wildlife reserve worker was killed by one of the lions that had been featured in the film, which changed the public perception of the Adamsons from wildlife heroes to eccentrics in the bush.   In the words of David Attenborough, “ Born Free is a myth and it is a lovely encouraging myth that we are at one with nature and that nothing awful ever happens.   Death and destruction and pain and agony is not part of that myth.   It happens to be part of the natural world.”

In a dark twist ending to the Adamsons' extraordinary lives, Joy was brutally murdered by a disgruntled staff member at her reserve.   And nearly 10 years after Joy's death, George was gunned down by poachers and bandits who wanted to shut down his camp.

Since the heyday of Born Free , experts estimate Africa's lion population has plummeted by 80-90%, partly due to the ever-increasing human population that shares their habitat.   But their loss would have an impact across the ecosystem, and with only about 20,000 lions left now compared with 200,000 just 20 years ago, the pressure is on to save them.  

Despite criticism of their work, the Adamsons developed intriguing insights about animal behavior and laid the foundation for future conservationist efforts.   Before them, no one had attempted or knew how to rehabilitate a domesticated wild animal.   Their ground-breaking experiment with Elsa profoundly transformed our view of the natural world.   As McKenna says, “Elsa's life and her death and her relationship with George and Joy Adamson have had an impact beyond description….   Through the Adamsons' life with [Elsa] the whole understanding of human beings to individual animals began.”

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