Imagine escaping from the jaws of a lion, and living to tell the tale.
This is what happened to Sir Anthony Raymond Fitzjohn, a conservationist who worked at Kora National Park in Kitui County for 18 years.
Having lived with wild animals at the national park, Fitzjohn had many close mishaps. But one that is forever etched in his mind is when the angry lion attacked him in 1975, almost killing him.
Before the attack, which highlights his wildlife conservation career spanning over four decades, Fitzjohn had survived many other attacks in the wild, including one by ferocious rhinos and Somali bandits.
In his lifelong quest to safeguard Africa’s wild animals, Fitzjohn, a Briton, also had a long-running battle with corrupt government officials who finally ejected him from Kenya.
He is best known for the 18 years he spent helping George Adamson — the internationally renowned conservationist of the Born Free fame — to rehabilitate and return lions to the wild in Kora.
Tony, as he’s fondly known in conservation circles, has accepted an invitation by Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu to return to Kenya and help rebuild the world famous lion camp at Kora, and hopefully bring back the wildcats.
On the 30th memorial of Adamson this week, Fitzjohn recalls with fascinating warmth and humour his early days in the vast Kora wild, his incredibly close bond with the big cats and the awful incident when he was mauled by one of the lions.
“The funny thing about being chewed by a lion is that they don’t bite chunks out of you. They suffocate you,” he narrates the incident, which is documented in Born Wild, his best-selling memoir.
He recalls how a full grown lion weighing almost 200 kilos pounced on him, going straight for his neck and knocking his breath out.
He lost consciousness as the wildcat went for the kill. He was not sure whether the big cat was from the wild or one of those under their care at Kora camp.
“I had lost a tooth in the attack and one of my ears was hanging off. A hole had been bitten in my right shoulder and neck — large enough to put my fist through,” he told Lifestyle.
Interestingly, he was saved from the jaws of the aggressive lion by another lion from their camp, without which he stood no chance of survival as Adamson and workers helplessly kept a distance.
There were no painkillers in the bush in those days except some ancient veterinary syrup, and Fitzjohn couldn't swallow anything as blood kept flowing from gaping holes in the neck.
Worse still, the Flying Doctors did not arrive until the next morning.
It took several painful weeks at Nairobi Hospital before Fitzjohn fully recovered and resumed work at Kora.
Even though he still considers the attack his closest shave, this has never been a heavy price to pay for the privilege of rescuing animals since 1971.
Fortunately for Kenyan lions and leopards, Fitzjohn survived the attack and many other mishaps in his subsequent years.
But with his imminent return to Kora, it will clearly take more than a disgruntled lion to take down this determined Englishman.
Now 74 years old and arguably the remaining expert of a dying breed of conservationists, Fitzjohn’s passion in seeking both refuge and meaning in a life devoted to protection and restoration of the animal kingdom saw him knighted by the Queen of England in 2006.
His rhino sanctuary and the programme for breeding and releasing endangered African wild dogs saw him awarded the prestigious Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen.
Fitzjohn confirms that he has accepted Ngilu’s invitation without preconditions despite suffering at the hands of game rangers and police during his stay at Kora National Park.
The conservationist is not scared of another mauling by lions on his grand return to Kenya “because lions are wild animals and no one should expect them to behave like people”.
“Going back to Kora would be a significant homecoming for me. It's a very magical place. It still hits me right between the eyes every time I go there,” he says.
Upon return, he plans to restore the Adamson's camp, which was burnt down by Shifta bandits, and preserve it as a museum.
He also plans to erect a fence around Kora to bar thousands of camels, cows and goats from straying into the park.
Ngilu says discussions with Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala are at an advanced stage to bring on board relevant national government stakeholders like the Kenya Wildlife Service and the ministry.
“Few people can withstand the humiliation of being frustrated by authorities to flee a country they sacrificed their lives for, and still be compassionate enough to accept an invite to return to the same nation,” the governor said.
Fitzjohn’s restless spirit driven by an enduring passion for the wild was evident at the tender age of 22, when he accepted the risky job whose previous holder had just been killed by a lion.
After school, Fitzjohn quit his job as a management trainee in London to become, first, a nightclub bouncer, then a long-distance truck driver in South Africa before coming to Kenya where he met Joy Adamson, who linked him with her husband.
In a previous interview with Lifestyle at the graveside of his mentor in the Kora wild, he revealed his deeply personal struggle with guilt and anger at the brutal murder of Adamson in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the lion project.
“Kora was a tough school, but it made me an expert in capturing and cuddling Africa's top predators as well as raising and returning them to the wild,” he said.
According to him, life in the wild was simple, remote and a massive isolation from the outside world.
They lived off corned beef and tinned peas most of the time, but the experience was invaluable to the young intern.
“The key is to embrace their wildness and try not to tame them. George and I survived with the big cats for so long because we learnt instinctively to understand their behaviour,” he explains.
He promises to confront the biggest threat to wildlife in Africa — livestock barons who invade with thousands of stock, poison predators, harbour the hunting gangs and poach for meat as well.
As the title of his memoir Born Wild suggests, Fitzjohn seems to have been born a bit rough and with an inherent cynicism of authority.
His expulsion from Kenya in 1988 and the death of Adamson at the hands of Shifta bandits the following year were a turning point in his life.
On several occasions, he was arrested, beaten up and charged in court in an intimidation campaign aimed at frustrating their conservation work to force them out of the park.
Fitzjohn believes that Adamson was murdered by design to stop his conservation work, which had gained global approval, because some people were benefiting from a chaotic Kora.
He cites an incident in August 1987 when he was arrested in Mwingi, Kitui County, and driven hundreds of kilometres to court in Hola town, present day Tana River County.
He was charged with dealing with wild animals and running a tourist camp without a permit.
“It was a laughable nightmare. I lived in a cage with a leopard that wouldn’t even let my girlfriend near me let alone a tourist. I had no option but to plead guilty to the charges and pay the fines,” he says.
ESCAPE TO TANZANIA
In another awful incident, he was arrested by rangers, who were known to him, and beaten up as his staff watched.
The rangers accused him of trespassing into Kora yet they knew he was Adamson’s assistant. His fleeing to Tanzania at the age of 45 was a turning point.
There, he decided to marry a former convent girl named Lucy, who was 22 years younger than him. They have four children.
He then set base in Mkomazi, a neglected game reserve which he turned from a wilderness into a national park, putting up infrastructure single-handedly: an airstrip, roads, dams, electricity and water.
Former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, who served as MP for Mwingi North, which bordered Kora, said it was sad to see the lion conservation programme collapse after the death of Adamson.
Musyoka, a Trustee of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, welcomed the plans to revive the lion conservation work, saying Tanzania took advantage of Fitzjohn’s expertise to make tremendous progress in boosting their tourism.
Fitzjohn and Adamson reintroduced more than 30 lions and 10 leopards into the wild. And despite its remote setting, the project received many visitors such as journalists, researchers and people simply looking for escape or adventure.
His other regular guests were Khalid Khashoggi, the son of Adnan, then one of the richest men in the world. Others were the King of Toro in Uganda and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.