Animals return to 'Born Free' wildlife park

Meru, the Kenyan national park where Joy Adamson released the lioness Elsa into the wild, is filling up with animals again after decades of poaching and banditry destroyed the area's ecosystem.

Animals in the equatorial park were systematically hunted down in the 1980s and 1990s by poachers from nearby Somalia who wanted elephant tusks and rhino horns to sell in the Middle East and Asia.

Joy herself was murdered in the park by a disgruntled employee in 1980, and her husband George Adamson was shot by Somali bandits nine years later in nearby Kora, part of the same ecosystem.

By 1989, all but one of the park's 300 rhinos had been killed. The number of elephants in the park also fell from 3,500 to 700. The only animals that thrived were Joy's beloved lions, which fed off the carcasses left behind by poachers.

"Lion numbers rocketed in the 1980s and 1990s because there were so many dead animals around," said Mark Jenkins, the warden in charge of Meru. "Their natural mortality rate fell and pride sizes increased to abnormal levels ­ you would get about 20 animals in a pride, when normally you just get five or six." The lions are still there, moving between the doum palms inside Meru, but as the poachers are driven away they have to hunt for their food again. They are also being joined by rhinos, elephants, impalas and zebras. Some of the animals have wandered back into the park of their own accord, others have been transported there from other game reserves around the country. Most of the rehabilitation began five years ago when the US-based International Fund for Animal Welfare gave $1.25m (£700,000) to Meru to improve security and rebuild roads and warden's offices in the park.

Tony Fitzjohn, who worked as George's assistant, is helping Kenyan Wildlife Services (KWS) to rebuild George Adamson's camp in Kora. He also wants to clean up the graves of George Adamson and his assistants who were killed in the same attack. The headstones were destroyed by poachers. "If we care for the graves, we send out a message that this area has not been forgotten and that poachers cannot expect to operate here unhindered," said Mr Fitzjohn, who runs a nature reserve in Tanzania. "Kora has 75 miles of the most beautiful river in Africa and the oldest geology to be found anywhere. It is one of the greatest unexplored territories in the world."

There is still work to be done. Somalia is still in an anarchic state and Meru's wardens see themselves as being at war with poachers armed with AK-47s. People also come in to hunt for bushmeat, which is either eaten by local communities or sold in the big towns as beef. The only accommodation in the park are a handful of basic campsites and one expensive lodge that can sleep just 28. The other lodges dotted around Meru closed as poachers moved in and US travel advisories warned tourists to stay away from Kenya.

The local people, who mostly belong to the Borana tribe, have mixed feelings about the revival of the gamepark. On one hand, the game wardens drive away the poachers who often kill local villagers and steal their crops, but on the other, most villagers have had their crops destroyed by elephants and they are not keen on the idea that the wild animals will be brought back to the area.

KWS has tried to solve the problems by building fences that stop wildlife wandering into farmland, but the fences cost $2,000 per kilometre to build, and there are not enough funds to block off all areas.

"We plant papays, maize, sugar cane, bananas, and the elephant eats them all," complained Malim Bila. "Once when I was sleeping with my crops, about 20 elephants came and ate everything. I thought they would kill me too."

Joy and George Adamson became known throughout the world after they adopted the lion cub Elsa in 1956 and decided to reintegrate her into the wild three years later.

Wild animals are now routinely reared in captivity and later released but at the time, the story of how the Adamsons taught Elsa to hunt and developed her survival instincts caught the West's imagination, and the book Born Free that Joy wrote about their experiences became a best seller. In 1964, the book was turned into a film with Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.

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