I sleep lightly on safari because I don’t want to miss anything. My eyes are closed, but I hover in a dreamy half-awake state with ears attuned to every sound. During the middle of the night, the wind died. It was hot and still. I was cocooned in my mosquito net and sleeping on top of the covers. Slowly I became conscious of something on my toe. I reached for the flashlight under my pillow and turned the light on. Bright eyes beamed back at me and I realized that I had a visitor, and that he had been nibbling at my toe!
My guest did not move – his eyes just grew wider and he was probably thinking, like me, about who would flee first. It was a stand-off of just a few seconds, but I got a good enough look at him to know, by the distinctive long tail, that it was a genet cat. Slowly I moved to the edge of the bed in order to lift the mosquito net. My movements startled him and he jumped, entangling himself in the net. I reached down, pulled the net up, and the genet slinked away to a branch outside my room. I got up, tucked the mosquito net FIRMLY under the mattress and went back to sleep.
At dawn, Christopher brought me some coffee and biscuits. I had time for just a quick cup and decided to deed my biscuits to the other invaders of my room – rock hyraxes – that were perched on the same branch as the genet cat during the night.
It took us over an hour of straight driving to reach the gravesite, set along the Uru River. The camp had provided us with a guide in order to find the site – we would have been desperately lost for hours without the assistance of Wilson.
The Adamson’s work with lions, particularly George’s, was controversial. A number of people were mauled by George’s lions resulting in his eventual banishment from Meru to the remote wilderness area of Kora. The Adamson’s also lived in Kenya at a time when the treatment of local staff would be considered offensive in our era of enlightened race relations. Their advocacy for wild animals and their right to return to the wild, however, instead of being placed in zoos, brought attention to the threats that wildlife face as the expansion of human settlements puts ever more pressure on wildlife habitats.
Now, tall double fences at long stretches of the park keep the elephants from wandering into farmland and grazing areas in order to decrease human/wildlife encounters that can be deadly. The fences also prevent local livestock from reaching plentiful water sources during the dry seasons. The expansion of human settlements into wildlife areas means that this conflict will continue – as the population of Kenya increases and development expands there will be more competition for critical resources like water and grazing land.
But I was caught up in the romance of the story of George and Joy Adamson living with lions in the wild. Elsa’s grave was a simple and peaceful place. The stone had three plaques, one of which was missing. A simple plaque had her name, birth and death dates (she only lived five years) and an engraved plaque on the top of the grave had a poem in German and English. After reading it aloud to Big William and Wilson, I took a picture of Big William on the grave.
Elsa likely died of tick fever. This is what George Adamson wrote in his diary, on the night that she died:
“During the night Elsa became restless, walked down to the river and into the water, then crossed to half a submerged mud bank and lay on it until about 4 am, I suppose to cool her fevered body. Her breathing was very labored and I knew the end was near.
I roused the camp and got my three boys to improvise a stretcher and we carried her back to my tent. I lay down beside her and started to dose off. Suddenly she got up, walked quickly to the front of the tent and collapsed. I held her head in my lap. In a few minutes she sat up and uttered a great and agonized cry. Elsa was dead.
It may seem absurd but Elsa meant more to me than any other living creature has ever done.
My Elsa gone. Gone the most wonderful friend and part of my life which nothing can replace.
Why should it be? Something which has created nothing but good will and love in the world.”
Joy Adamson was murdered in Shaba National Reserve on 3 January, 1980 by a discharged laborer formerly employed by Adamson. George Adamson was murdered in 1989 while rushing to the aid of a tourist being attached by poachers.