Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy Birthday, Lion-Man

A typical scene, somewhere in the wilds of Africa. After a bloody struggle, one of the mightiest predators ever to the walk the earth--a full-grown male lion--has brought down a zebra and hungrily torn it to shreds. Now we see him taking his ease, belly swollen with the 40 pounds of meat he can eat at one sitting. It is a scene that has been repeated countless times for millions of years, and perhaps will be for millions more.

Let us all hope so. For to most human beings, the lion IS Africa, the Africa still embedded in our own African genes. With his strength, his beauty, his regal mane, his thunderous roar, he is a summary and avatar of Nature itself, of the world outside our roads and billboards and slums and cement. Somehow we know the ferocious killer we see here is living the life he is meant for, and is in his own way as happy and contented as any living being should be. For he is free: he is himself, master of his own destiny, and beyond the reach of the heavy hand of Man. . . .

Hey, wait a minute--what's that old geezer doing there? Sitting on a tree branch ten feet from a wild lion, and . . . filling his pipe? He must be crazy! Doesn't he know smoking can kill him?

Perhaps the old geezer is a bit daft. He'd probably be the first to admit it. But then, this is no ordinary old geezer. This is George Adamson, the Lion-Man.

Today would have been Adamson's 105th birthday. This is within range of 108, the average number of days that a lion gestates in the womb. And if any man could have shared a womb with lions, it would have been George Adamson. No one before or since has ever had a more profound love of lions, or a more intimate understanding of them. Even George Schaller, perhaps the world's pre-eminent naturalist, and the man who wrote THE book on Panthera leo-- namely, The Serengeti Lion--relied on Adamson to tell him things about lions (such as how they smell, or how they call their cubs) that no scientist could get close enough to discover.

How close was Adamson to lions? Here is one of many possible examples, from his first autobiography, A Lifetime with Lions. He is speaking of three lions who had originally been kept in captivitiy, and whom he is rehabilitating to return to the wild:
Ugas soon found out that it was only necessary for him to rear up and lean on the wire with his great weight for it to sag and permit easy ac- cess into my compound. He availed himself of the knowledge on several occasions and spent nights in my tent, stretched out on the floor alongside my bed. Once Boy and Girl followed him and I had all three lions sleeping beside me. As there was nothing much I could do about it I let them be and followed their example. They were very well-behaved, at least by lion standards; that is to say I was permitted to sleep undisturbed, but lions are not particular about where they urinate. . . .
How many humans have ever awakened to the aroma of cold lion pee? And how many would have taken the opportunity (as Adamson does in the remainder of this paragraph) to use the experience to speculate on the evolutionary function of lion toilet habits? It was Adamson who discovered that lion urine is a natural insect repellent--a fact which the makers of DEET have been remarkably slow to exploit.

Adamson was born in India, the son of a British civil engineer, but moved to Africa as a child. In his youth he led the life of a typical White adventurer of the day: panning for gold, hiking across deserts, stumbling on ruins and ancient graves, and becoming intimate with peoples who to most outsiders are little more than legends: the regal Maasai, the courageous Boran, the kindly Elmolo. And of course, like all his contemporaries he did a lot of big-game hunting: in those days you could purchase an elephant-hunting license for a couple of week's wages, and you were perfectly free to sell the tusks.

But at some point Adamson had a revelation: "I realized," he wrote in A Lifetime with Lions, "that I enjoyed watching animals more than shooting them." As a result, he enlisted as a game warden in what was then one of the wildest places in the world: the Northern Frontier Province of Kenya. For decades he criss-crossed hundreds of thousands of square miles of mountains, forests, rivers, deserts, and plains, chasing poachers, bandits, rogue elephants, and an occasional madman or two. He was trampled, gored, bitten, stung, and came down with malaria (more than once). But it was while hunting down and killing a pair of man-eating lions--and almost getting killed in the process--that Adamson came upon the greatest love of his life. Her name was Elsa. . . .
   Elsa is the one lioness a significant portion of the human race knows by name. The star of Born Free, written by Adamson's wife Joy, Elsa has had a movie made about her life, a song inspirted by her, and--perhaps her most lasting honor--a change in public attitudes toward wild predators. Before Elsa came along, lions were seen as vicious, frightful killers, symbolic stand-ins for rapacious royal houses. Joy and George changed that view forever.
   Born Free went on to sell millions of copies and make Joy Adamson a literary star. Her husband's writings, however, are less well-known. Which is too bad. I've never encountered any works quite like My Pride and Joy, or A Lifetime With Lions, from which I quote:
One night I was woken by a yell from Joy. A lion had tried to enter her tent. A few nights later I heard them in front of my tent and looked out to see a young male reaching up the trunk of a tree and tearing a new canvas water bag which I had hung there to shreds. Next, there was a disturbance in the kitchen and by the light of a torch [flashlight] I saw a lioness going off with a large empty cardboard carton. Then there was the hyena who became the bane of my life . . .

 Adamson was not only a civil-servant/adventurer/animal rights advocate. He was also an excellent writer with a distinct and sometimes hilarious voice. You can easily imagine him sitting in some gentleman's club in a smoking jacket, snifter of brandy at his elbow, regaling his cronies with tales of improbable adventure in a stiff-upper-lip British grumble.
Every few nights the hyena would come into my tent and steal various items of food. Cheese and bacon were his favourites. When I locked these in an iron box he tried to go off with the box. He seemed to have an uncanny instinct for knowing when I was asleep. Among unopened cans of food he invariably chose Ideal Milk, which he would carry off a short distance, then pierce the cans with his teeth and suck the contents.
You can see a discrete smile play across his face as he pauses to relight his pipe. "Cheeky devil," he mutters, not without a touch of admiration.
Once he entered my men's tent and stole a pair of shorts, whether for personal adornment, in order to impress his fellow hyenas, or for consumption it is difficult to say. At length, in desperation, I set a rat trap baited with a piece of bacon. This gave him the surprise of his life and a sore nose, and it was a long time before I was molested again.
One wonders--briefly--how Adamson knew what was or was not surprising to a hyena. But it's a telling detail, and says much about the man, when you realize that Adamson could empathize with a wild and to most eyes rather ugly predator--even one who had the audacity to run off with a gentleman's shorts.
A week later Black Mane again started a fight with Ugas. I was out in time to prevent any damage and chased him away. But now Ugas was determined to get his revenge and set off after him. I was equally determined that Ugas should not get involved ina  serious fight and followed. . . . Black Mane kept his distance. At intervals he would roar a challenge, to which Ugas replied in kind and doggedly followed. Finally, after stumbling over lava strewn plains for hours, I managed to convince Ugas that he had seen Black Mane off and we started back for camp, Ugas leaving many a message, doubtless insulting, on bushes he passed. Dawn was breaking as we entered camp.
"Doubtless insulting"? Let's remember that the person writing these words is the world's greatest authority on lion urine. If anyone would know, it would be George Adamson.

to be continued