Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

NATURE: Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story

Elsa, a Ngorongoro lion
Courtesy of © Sacha Mirzoeff
Elsa, a Ngorongoro lion

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

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.

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.

NATURE is on Facebook, and you can follow @PBSNature on Twitter.