Meru National Park, in Kenya, was the home of Elsa, the Lioness made famous by the book Born Free by Joy Adamson and by the film of the same name – a wildlife classic starring Born Free Co-Founders Virginia McKenna OBE and Bill Travers MBE. Elsa is the inspiration for the Born Free Foundation.
Home of the famous Elsa, Meru National Park was tragically decimated by poachers in the 1980s. Lion numbers dropped to a stable population of 60-80 Lions. Meru still has a long way to go, but Born Free is looking to increase Lion protection, monitoring and population tracking, as well as expanding their conservation work across the Meru Conservation Area, and rekindling the entire ecosystem so that other species can flourish once more.
In the 2000s, concerted efforts were made to restock the park with wildlife and manage it effectively. In 2014, Born Free, working alongside Kenya Wildlife Service, launched its Pride of Meru initiative to further revitalise the park and now it is not only home to a stable population of 60-80 Lions, but also a whole host of other wildlife including 35 mammal, 400 bird and 40 reptile species.
Will Travers OBE, President and Co-Founder of Born Free, said: “Our work in Meru National Park is a wonderful example of just how resilient our world can be, and how nature will bounce back if we all work together. Once poaching in the park was brought under control, wildlife was able to re-establish itself across the many diverse habitats found in this unique protected area. By implementing our Lion monitoring project, working with local communities and schools bordering the park, educating and empowering people and highlighting the importance of wildlife conservation, we have been able to encourage co-existence, and promote more sustainable livelihoods that work for local communities living around Meru, and its wildlife. “But this is only the first step. Our plan, building on the success of our protection work and Meru’s thriving wildlife, is to expand our efforts across the whole of the Meru Conservation Area spanning more than 4,000 km2 including Kora National Park and the Bisinadi and Mwingi national reserves. Starting with Meru, we must redouble our efforts to save and protect the Lions of Africa now more than ever – a world without them is quite simply, unimaginable.”
Meru National Park has had a difficult past, beginning with the Shifta wars in the 1960s, and then later overrun by poachers who massacred wildlife in the late 1970s and 1980s. In the 2000s, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) made concerted efforts to restock the park and re-establish wildlife populations. Today, despite its dark past, the park’s wildlife population is flourishing and has transformed it to a stunning wilderness and arguably Kenya’s most scenic conservation area.
Accurate assessment of population size is notoriously difficult for large carnivores but is essential and thus we invest a great deal of effort in Lion monitoring. We monitor Lions through opportunistic sightings, tracking spoors and using innovative methodology i.e. satellite collars deployed on Lions and camera trap surveys. We currently monitor six known Lion prides. The collars enable us to estimate populations, track movements, estimate the extent of the home range, and monitor habitat use and predator-prey interactions. Lion populations are mainly threatened by human activities, such as poaching, habitat loss and declines in wildlife prey populations, which is exacerbated by human population growth, some forms of development, and rural poverty. Our Lion population currently stands at 60 Lions and this parallels Lion declines throughout Kenya. Only 2,000 remain in the entire country and the numbers continue to drop.
Thanks to the dedication and passion of the Pride of Meru team, and our Kenya Wildlife Service colleagues, the future looks bright for these Lions and their prey. As the Meru Lion and other large carnivore populations grow, it is critical that there is plenty of prey, and an expansive suitable Lion conservation area. Hence, to ensure a healthy ecosystem where Lions not only survive, but also thrive, requires continuous and critical monitoring of the status of Lions.
Doctor Caroline Ng’weno
Will Travers OBE
Virginia McKenna OBE, actress and Co-Founder of Born Free, added: “It’s hard to believe that 56 years have passed since I arrived in Kenya with my husband Bill and our young family to film Born Free. Little did we know then that our lives would be changed forever by the unique and inspiring story of Elsa the Lioness, the incredible compassion of George and Joy Adamson, and the bonds we formed with some of the Lions we worked with in the film.
“In those days, Meru was famous for its abundant wildlife and, some say, even rivalled the famous Maasai Mara. However, tragically, in the 1980s Meru was overrun by poachers and its wildlife was decimated. But, today, Meru is fighting back. At Born Free, we want a world where Lions roam free, safe from poachers and human-wildlife conflict. Where people around the park and the wildlife within it can co-exist peacefully. Where nature thrives. I am asking people who share our vision to join us and help ensure a future for wild Lions.”
“In Meru you have the luxury of being able to stay at an animal sighting for hours without being disturbed. The wildlife here is not as plentiful as the Maasai Mara or Amboseli but, conversely, this makes the sightings even more special and rewarding. There are also fewer visitors to Meru, so you definitely do get the sensation of being in a beautiful, remote wilderness, without the ‘20 vehicles around a Lion’ scenario that often happens in the more popular safari destinations.”
Designated a stronghold for Lion conservation, Born Free has been working closely with Kenya Wildlife Service since 2014 to bring Meru back to its former glory. There is now a stable population of between 60-80 Lions living within the national park, as well as a whole host of other wildlife.
With your help, we want to not only continue our work, but expand it so that Elsa’s legacy is guaranteed for many years to come. With your support, we can increase our Lion protection, monitoring and population tracking, expand our Lion conservation work across Meru Conservation Area, and rekindle the entire ecosystem so that other species can flourish. We must provide a future for wild Lions throughout this vital part of their Kenyan range.
There are many wonderful wildlife photographers, but George’s images are amongst the most intriguing, thought-provoking and original.
Born Free founder and actress Virginia McKenna OBE
The human race has to now decide whether it is prepared to share the planet with the last few surviving of the most iconic predator.