In 1971, Tony Fitzjohn arrived in Kenya to work for the late and legendary conservationist George Adamson.
They operated a lion rehabilitation project in the then Kora Game Reserve (later to be proclaimed a National Park because of their profile) in Kenya. The project, although groundbreaking at the time, was not without its critics. It was definitely not a ‘petting zoo’ or in anyway similar some deeply flawed rehab programs common of today.
Kora was wild, daunting, pioneering, expansive, and with few people.
Within our contemporary viewpoint it is imperative to see the project in context of the era in which it occurred. After all, do courageous ground-breakers not provide us with effective hindsights?
Although George Adamson is a deeply inspirational role model for me, this article pays tribute to one of the great wildlife conservationists and ambassadors of our time: Tony Fitzjohn OBE.
Adamson’s work and Fitzjohn’s mentorship … one that suggested that lions have every right to live dignified lives as humans have … was ridiculed as eccentric by many scientists at the time.
“It has no merit, is unscientific, and it is pointless assigning characters and personalities to individual lions,” one asked. What was the value in uncovering intimate details and nuances about lion behaviour, intelligence, character and emotion? And how could wildlife conservation benefit from these perceived anthropomorphic overtures that threaten scientific reasoning?
A great deal I would suggest.
A groundswell of public awareness and investment in conservation emerged. Their work opened the world’s eyes toward a greater understanding and appreciation of not only lion behaviour, but also of a broader worldview of conservation. One of humanity, devotion, tolerance, heart and heightened connections. One of pushing boundaries.
It’s probably true that the impact of a meaningful conservation culture depends on these levels of resolve, commitment and care, and those of personal investment and compassion. These are all attributes that flow from emotional attachments.
It is largely accepted that the subsequent profile of the rehabilitation project at Kora (following on from the ‘Born Free’ legend) played a substantial role in the collapse of the European fur trade. This was a major milestone in the annals of global wildlife conservation.
Tony Fitzjohn, along with the support of George Adamson Wildlife Protection Trust, would go on to spearhead the establishment of Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania. A restoration project of monster proportions, and one that is now surely one of the leading conservation success stories in the world. He left Mkomazi in 2020 and has subsequently returned to revitalise his old stomping ground at Kora.
A quite remarkable story.
For me, Tony Fitzjohn broke down barriers between the ‘hard’ side of wildlife conservation, and the ‘soft.’ He is living proof that an emotional and empathetic investment into the care of wild subjects leads to a complete passionate investment into all things conservation. A dedication required to navigate through an incredible array of challenges and hardships that come standard in this field.
Eccentric? Perhaps. Devoted innovative world leader in conservation? Without a doubt.