Africa’s lions are in danger of dying out in ten years, says Martin Clunes

“The fact is that there is no ‘free’ left for lions... For them, fences are the future”


Martin Clunes expected to feel many things after agreeing to be part of one man’s attempt to re-create the Born Free dream and return endangered lions to a remote part of Kenya. Excitement and joy, certainly, and even a degree of trepidation at coming so close to one of nature’s most magnificent but dangerous creatures.


Not, perhaps, sadness. Yet the 52-year-old actor confesses that this was his predominant emotion after a filming project for ITV that spanned more than a year and saw him confront the enormous challenges faced by animal conservationists in Africa. “It surprised me how much I was affected by what I saw,” he admits. “It was an amazing experience, but at the same time, day by day, the realisation of what we are losing crept up on me, and that feeling was hard to shake.”

On paper at least, it should have been a romantic, feel-good mission. It is 25 years since lions roamed freely in Kenya’s Kora National Reserve, home to the camp that conservationists George and Joy Adamson set up to rescue lions and release them back into the wild. Their endeavours, which started with their successful rehabilitation of an orphaned lion cub they named Elsa, were captured in the internationally acclaimed book and 1966 film Born Free.

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George went on to release 30 more lions into the wild. Following his murder in 1989, said to be by Somali poachers – Joy had herself been killed, in 1980, some years after their separation – his camp, known as Kambi ya Simba, or camp of lions, was abandoned. But today, nearly 25 years later, one of George’s former wardens, Tony Fitzjohn, has rebuilt the camp, driven by the dream of bringing lions back to a land from which they have all but disappeared.

In the programme cameras follow Clunes and Fitzjohn as they embark on that mission with one orphaned lion cub, Mugie. But their bid becomes ensnared by the bureaucracy and population expansion that threaten conservation all over Africa. “We live in a very different world from the one that George and Joy inhabited in the 60s,” says Clunes. “What Tony was trying to do was, effectively, to reverse history.”

That attempt begins when Mugie is rescued at just three weeks old after being washed up on a riverbank after a flash flood. Nursed at a private game reserve for the next three months, Mugie – named after the place where he was found – is to be Kambi ya Simba’s first lion inhabitant, one who Fitzjohn hopes will in time become part of a thriving population.

Much depends on this, for as Clunes learnt to his shock, lions are in crisis. “I had no idea how endangered they are,” he says. “There are 500,000 elephants left in Africa, but only 30,000 lions, and unless something drastic is done, they could die out in the wild in less than ten years. It’s astonishing and depressing.”

Less astonishing are the reasons for the decline in numbers, which lie with a population explosion and poaching. In the past 50 years, the population of Kenya has swollen from eight million people in 1960 to more than 40 million today, boosted by incomers from neighbouring Somalia. “And of course an increased population leads to an increase in the number of the problems that rising populations bring,” says Clunes.

Here the particular danger is poaching, evidenced by the forlorn and desperate sight of elephant corpses littering the dusty landscape. They in turn bring predatory hyenas to the area – not an immediate threat to a pack of lions, but an unequal battle for a solitary cub.

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Certainly, Clunes was left in little doubt about the immediacy of the threat. Filming only a short distance from camp, the crew came across an elephant skeleton, peppered with bullet holes and picked clean by hyenas. “The holes were at the back, showing it had been shot in the bottom,” says Clunes. “It was a young elephant, because there aren’t any 40-year-plus elephant matriarchs left – they’re all gone. So now poachers are killing seven-year-old ellies for 20-centimetre tusks, probably just to buy themselves some phone credit. It’s barbaric – and these aren’t isolated incidents.”

The number of hyenas, meanwhile, cannot be monitored exactly – no one is counting – but their presence is a deadly threat for the vulnerable young. “A strong population of lions would keep them at bay, but it is tough for single lions,” says Clunes. “Like everything else, the numbers are all wrong. There are too many people, too many poachers, too many hyenas.”

Clunes likens Mugie to the Brad Pitt of the big cat world. The cub adapts successfully to life at the camp. Yet when Clunes returns there a year after his first visit, it becomes clear to him that, however successful Fitzjohn’s mission, the challenges he faces means he will never be able entirely to relive the Born Free dream.

“Back in the 60s, Elsa was released into the wild with no barriers, but today the dangers are just too great,” says Clunes.

Only by creating a reserve, protected by an electric fence to prevent poachers, can Kambi ya Simba and its inhabitants flourish. It proves a sobering realisation and Clunes remains saddened by it months after his return home.

“However much we may want it to be other- wise, the sad fact is that there is no ‘free’ left for lions,” he says. “For them, fences are the future.”

See Martin Clunes and a Lion Called Mugie, Friday 9:00pm, ITV

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