Born Wild: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Passion for Lions and for Africa by Tony Fitzjohn

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Born Wild: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Passion for Lions and for Africa by Tony Fitzjohn

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A wryly written account of life with the animals (and people) of Kenya and Tanzania in the struggle to protect the former and accommodate the latter.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670918911

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Maybe it's just my rock-chick nature but "Born Wild" feels a little clunky as titles go. Surely it should have been "Born To Be Wild"? Perhaps that phrase has been copyrighted and wasn't available. Or maybe Fitzjohn was deliberately referencing Joy Adamson's book "Born Free" – since much of the early part of his own time in Africa was spent with her husband George. "Born To Be Wild" would have been more accurate as well. Many of the animals we meet weren't born wild at all – though a good few of them got to live out the remainder of their days and die that way.

Tony Fitzjohn was born at the end of the war on the wrong side of the tracks, at the end of the line. Abandoned by his father, his mother tried to bring him up alone but it was hard to do when there was no work, little food and a hatful of stigma to contend with. Clearly he bears her no ill-will for giving him up for adoption. Equally clearly he loved his adoptive parents. His father worked in a bank and his mother was an inveterate charity worker always off to do something in a hat. They brought him up well, but this settled existence didn't sit well with him. Perhaps it was those first few months of erratic existence with his birth-mother that instilled a need for uncertainty and adventure. Or maybe it really was the Tarzan books that he read as a child.

Certainly it is Rice-Burroughs he credits with instilling in him his love of Africa.

The credit for him having the strength of character to get there and deal with it when he did he ascribes to the Scouting movement and Mill Hill School. Prior to his father's promotion and a house-move that led to him being enrolled at the latter, he feels he was probably on his way to a life of petty crime (commencing as it usually did for folk of his generation by nicking from Woolworths).

His fees were paid for by a scholarship but all the usual extras were a burden on a family who also had a daughter to school. He responded appropriately with a desire to change his accent, get three A-levels and play rugby for the first XV. This probably tells you everything you need to know about Tony Fitzjohn. He doesn't do anything by halves.

We get the synopsis of what happened next, but it is all just the lead in to Africa. If you think this is going to be all "boys own" adventure stuff (an easy mistake to make given the photo of Fitzjohn and Bugsy, a fully grown lion, hugging on the front cover) you would be wrong. When the author finally gets his opportunity to get to the dark continent it is in the company of his maiden aunt Alice.

It's not long however before the opportunist nature of his life kicks in. He makes spur of the moment decisions, meets influential people, asks the right people and by way of old school pals, people met in bars, Wilfred Thesiger, and the sheer cheek of writing to Joy Adamson on the strength of having met her while doing some building work on a neighbouring house among many other diversions he eventually finds himself hired by George Adamson.

Adamson is living in Kampi ya Simba at the foot of the Kora Hills in Kenya, with his brother Terence, a handful of staff and a bigger handful of orphaned or rescued lions. The latter he is intent on rehabilitating and reintroducing to the wild. Everything that happens at Kampi ya Simba (the camp of the lions) is entirely focussed on that aim. The humans take second place.

This is the world Fitzjohn has chosen – and although it is hard at times, and at times he fails to cope as well as he should - he adores it.

From this point on the book is about developments and relationships over the next forty years coming right up to date, first at Kora, and then across the border in Tanzania at Mkomazi. Those developments and relationships do, of course, cover the animals – not just lions, but leopards, elephant, rhino, African hunting dogs, - but just as importantly they cover the political developments (and degradations) as they affect wildlife protection in the two countries.

Ben Fogle calls this a true African adventure of epic proportions but it case that puts you off; I think that Martin Clunes is closer to the truth when he states that it is 'hugely compelling and funnily written. Fitzjohn has a wicked sense of humour. He sets the tone in the first sentences: The funny thing about being chewed up by a lion is that they don't bite chunks out of you – they suffocate you. All that firepower and they use a pillow.

He does go on to explain quite how effective that pillow is and we're in no doubt that we could have lost our hero before we've even met him. Over the course of years, friends and colleagues will lose their lives – many of them to that most vicious of animals (man) but others to the wild creatures he is working to save. Some individual animals will pay the price for that. But it doesn't detract from the overall point of the venture.

There is an acceptance by all concerned that all of these creatures are individuals. Some of them are good to be around; some of them are tricky to be around; and a very few are just too dangerous. You deal with the very few.

Aside from Fitzjohn's humour and enthusiasm for the hard life a great deal of the books charm obviously lies in the relationships with the animals, Christian the lion rescued from the Kings Road in Chelsea, Freddie a tiny orphan whose mother was shot for stock-raiding, Squeaks the leopard who started out as a performer in a Paris bar. There are the trials of losing all but three of their wild dogs, of a rhino with an apparent death wish, and another with a mystery illness. And there are the successes of coming across lions years after their release, still thriving, and the elephant who came 'home' to introduce her new calf.

There is another side to the story though, and this is where I was surprised to find the real interest. In a sense Fitzjohn is using the animals in this book as the lure to make us read about what it is really like trying to protect them. There is no moralising and he is at pains to explain that he can understand where some of the attitudes and behaviours come from (some of them), but much of the story is about battles with bandits, stockmen, pastoralists, politicians. It is about the struggle for funding for the mundane aspects of running a reserve: vehicles, fuel, food, weapons for the anti-poaching team, education for employees and their children and local communities, fence posts, wire, radios. It is about the uncertainty of working and living on a year-to-year work-permit. The audacity of having a wife and bringing up children when you've never drawn a full-time salary and still don't. It is about the illnesses and the deaths, as well as the success stories.

The loss of animals is reflected over the years in the loss of friends and colleagues, and more than once Fitzjohn moved me to tears over both.

There are intriguing insights into the reality of the relationship between Joy and George Adamson, and their respective work and beliefs.

Individuals and companies get the credit for their unsung support: aviation fuel from BP, JCBs for road building from John Bamford, vehicles from Suzuki, IFAW's advice finally convincing them that keeping the old trucks going was not cost effective, friends and family who always provide a place to sleep on fund-raising and lecture tours, personal cheques from Prince Bernhardt of the Netherlands among many others.

It is an astonishing work in which its author pulls no punches. He lavishes praise and condemnation without fear or favour. He admits his own bad behaviour, and relishes his good luck in a tale of endeavour, restrained anger, and unleashed emotion. If you ever believed that rubbish about 'real men don't cry' – read this!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for varied takes on some of the other many different sides of life in Africa try Robyn Scott's Twenty Chickens for a Saddle or Tim Butcher's Blood River.

Buy Born Wild: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Passion for Lions and for Africa by Tony Fitzjohn at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Born Wild: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Passion for Lions and for Africa by Tony Fitzjohn at

Buy Born Wild: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Passion for Lions and for Africa by Tony Fitzjohn at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Born Wild: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Passion for Lions and for Africa by Tony Fitzjohn at


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