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NATURE: Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story

Airs Wed., July 17, 2013 at 8 p.m. & Sunday, July 21 at 4 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Elsa, a Ngorongoro lion

In 1960, a book written about raising an orphaned lion cub named Elsa and then releasing her back into the wild became a worldwide bestseller. "Born Free" was a game changer that essentially altered the way we perceive relationships between humans and animals.


View a timeline of events in George and Joy Adamson's lives.

During PBS’ “The Born Free Story” session at the TCA Summer Press Tour in Los...
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Above: During PBS’ “The Born Free Story” session at the TCA Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles on August 5, 2010, actress, campaigner and founder and Trustee of the Born Free Foundation Virginia McKenna (pictured), discusses what’s changed since the rescue and release of three lion cubs by the Adamson family.

Promotional photo of a lion cub from
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Above: Promotional photo of a lion cub from "Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story"

Lion biologist Craig Packer
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Above: Lion biologist Craig Packer

Because of the emotional bond George and Joy Adamson formed with Elsa, lions could no longer be dismissed simply as brutal killers to be shot while on safari. Elsa became an individual in the eyes of the world, and her story made her a symbol for all animals’ right to live free.

Hollywood took the story to the next level with the 1966 release of the film based on the book. Starring real-life husband and wife Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna as George and Joy Adamson, it became a box office hit and award-winner, and turned Travers and McKenna into wildlife activists in the process.

But behind all the bright lights and public success lies the actual day-to-day story of the Adamsons’ life with Elsa. Diaries, home movies and detailed records reveal the real difficulties faced by the Adamsons as they began and continued their pioneering work with lions despite changing perceptions of their work and the increasing dangers around them.

In a dark twist ending to the Adamsons’ extraordinary lives, Joy was brutally murdered by a disgruntled staff member at her reserve. And nearly 10 years after Joy’s death, George was gunned down by poachers and bandits who wanted to shut down his camp.

Since the heyday of "Born Free," experts estimate Africa’s lion population has plummeted by 80-90%, partly due to the ever-increasing human population that shares their habitat. But their loss would have an impact across the ecosystem, and with only about 20,000 lions left now, the pressure is on to save them.

Recollections of Virginia McKenna and others who knew and worked with the Adamsons reshape the story told fifty years ago, retelling it as it really happened, and with no fairy tale ending. But Elsa’s legacy lives on as a touchstone for all who would speak for and work to support the freedom and welfare of wild animals everywhere.

In this film, NATURE examines the story, revisits the people featured in the film, and discusses the importance and dangers of viewing animals through a human lens as well as the shifting attitudes about conservation.

“This is an insider’s look at the world’s first environmental icon,” said Fred Kaufman, series executive producer. “There’s no question that Elsa became an ambassador of wildlife preservation because of the Adamsons and Born Free. Looking at Elsa’s legacy, we’re able to see wildlife protection then and now and how one animal made a world of difference.”

This film premiered January 9, 2011.

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Nature: Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story

2010 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Born Free" -- a book and then a film that forever changed the way we think about wildlife. What has happened to lions since this story? And what has happened to the people featured in the film? What has "Born Free" taught us? In "Elsa's Legacy," NATURE examines the story, revisits the people featured in the film, and discusses the importance and dangers of viewing animals through a human lens as well as the shifting attitudes about conservation.


Virginia McKenna at Elsa's Camp

“Born Free” star, Virginia McKenna, returns to Elsa’s camp.

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Avatar for user 'tracih'

tracih | January 12, 2011 at 8 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

As the film movingly captured, Elsa’s legacy is indeed that she was the first to foster the view to see wild animals as individuals. Indeed, this has been an incredibly important realization for humankind and the advancement of wildlife conservation. I thank Elsa, and all involved for that.

It should also to be emphasized that Elsa, her human family, the place and time were also unique – it is not something that can be recreated today. Some people could see this story and think “I want that special relationship with a wild animal,” which leads to all the problems we see every day about attacks, wild animals being kept as pets, etc. The situation with Elsa was rare, and is NOT safe or recommended. As George’s relationship with the lion, Boy, tragically showed, even when providing “love” and the “best” care possible (living without bars, in his natural “home”), Boy still attacked twice, killing someone he knew and was raised with.

And I’m in a special position to truly understand when those “good intentions” – go bad. I work at the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary. A place where Elsa’s legacy does live on. It’s place where primates are seen as individuals yet, are allowed to live as free as they can be with limited human interaction.

We are inspired by Elsa to help individuals in need. We rescue individual primates from abusive or exploitative situations as “pets” in people’s homes, as entertainment at roadside zoos and subjects in laboratories. They come to us each with their own individual story and with their own individual path to relearning to just be a monkey. And some of the hardest cases we deal with are those primates who were kept as pets – those animals kept with “good intentions” and given “love.”

If you’re like me, seeing Elsa’s story was inspiring, but at the end I felt a need to better connect what happened in Africa so many years ago and what is currently happening to wildlife here in the USA – and what I can do to help. It is in the spirit of Elsa, whose iconic image is on our logo, that I urge you to virtually visit and meet some of the individuals who live there and discover what you can do to help us Keep Wildlife in the Wild.

Traci Hanson
On-site Manager
Born Free USA
Primate Sanctuary

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