Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story
Interview: Actress and Activist Virginia McKenna


© Bryan Adams

Virginia McKenna starred in the 1966 film “Born Free” alongside her husband Bill Travers. Deeply inspired by their work on the film, they became wildlife activists. In 1984, McKenna and Travers started Zoo Check, later renamed the Born Free Foundation, an International wildlife charity working to prevent animal cruelty and suffering.

This interview was conducted by Inside Thirteen.

Are there any memories of making Born Free that stand out to you that you can share with us?

There are so many memories! Sharing dawn walks with lions on the African plains. Swimming with a lioness in the ocean. Remembering the start of our friendship with George Adamson, which continued until his murder in 1989. It was through him we learned about lions – why and how they respond to different circumstances. How to gain their trust, how to look at things from their point of view. Living in an old settler’s house in the bush, within roaring distance of the lions. The kindness of the Kenyan people we met and with whom we worked. And, of course, the vast Kenya skies with their extraordinary cloud formations which, miraculously, never seemed to obscure the sun.

Perhaps one of my most treasured memories is walking out with Girl (one of the lionesses “playing” Elsa) and her brother Boy and seeing a small group of Thomson’s gazelles some distance away. Suddenly Girl took off, stalked them, brought one down, killed it and then, in proper lion fashion, dragged it to us and laid it at my feet. She let us pick it up and put it in the back of the Land Rover to take back to camp. It really made us believe we were part of her pride.

You and your husband started a production company in 1968 to make wildlife documentaries. Do you have a favorite of these films?

My husband, Bill Travers, was the documentary filmmaker. Over the years, from 1966, he formed various independent film companies – Morning Star, Limelight Productions, and Swan Productions. His first film was the story of what happened to some of the lions that were in Born Free. Only three out of over 20 were given to George Adamson to rehabilitate back to the wild. It was the start of the work George was to continue until his death and Bill filmed this unique footage in “The Lions are Free.”

He made many amazing films – “Bloody Ivory,” about elephants being poached for the ivory trade, (tragically still happening today) and the orphans who are left behind when their mothers are killed. David Sheldrick, the then Senior Game Warden of Tsavo National Park was striving to catch the poachers and his wife, Daphne, cared for the orphans – amazing work she continues to this day. “The Queen’s Garden,” the life of the garden at Buckingham Palace, filmed over the period of a year, with an appearance by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and with a wonderful music score by John Scott. “Christian, The Lion at World’s End” – a clip from which has been viewed on YouTube millions of times. Bill’s chance encounter with this young lion and his owners in a shop in London enabled Christian, through Bill’s unfailing endeavours, to be returned to the wild in Kenya by George Adamson, after spending 4 months in a compound in our garden in the country, cared for by his owners Ace Bourke and John Rendall. Apart from the first scene where we met Christian, the whole documentary was filmed as it happened.

A feature film which he co-wrote and produced with James Hill (who directed Born Free and “Christian, the Lion at World’s End”) was “An Elephant Called Slowly,” in 1968. This film means a lot to me, as it was then that we met a little two-year-old elephant who had been captured from the wild by the then Kenyan Government as a gift to London Zoo. We made the film in Tsavo with the Sheldrick’s orphaned elephants as well. When filming ended, our request to buy the little one, Pole Pole, was granted but we were told another would have to be captured for the zoo. An intolerable thought. She came to the zoo. It was her death there, as a teenager, that propelled us into forming a charity to look at the situations wild animals face in captivity. Pole Pole’s death could not be in vain. Originally called Zoo Check, it was renamed The Born Free Foundation in 1991.

During pre-production on Born Free, you broke your ankle when a lion jumped on you. Were you nervous at all about something like this happening during the making of the film, or were you and the cast comfortable with the animals on set?

No, I wasn’t nervous about having an accident during the making of the film. The incident you mention was just chance. It only happened because the lion, Boy, was very excited. We had, with Girl, been stalking some gazelles out on an old airstrip. The gazelles were a long way off and our two were getting a bit frustrated. I think he decided I would be a bit easier to knock over! But apart from that he did not hurt me at all and we were very comfortable together when I eventually returned to work. The crew was protected in wire “cages” as it was important the focus of the relationship was between the lions, Bill, George and myself.

What was your experience working with Nature like?

I was very fortunate that, through taking part in the documentary, I was able to return to Kenya, to travel up to Meru, and revisit the places where Elsa lived, brought her cubs to the Adamson’s camp and where she died. I also went to the site of George’s first little camp where Bill made “The Lions are Free.” It is always a nostalgic experience for me when I return to these quiet, unassuming places where a kind of history was made. The Director, Sacha Mirzoeff, and the crew on the documentary were particularly sensitive and nice people and I felt very fortunate.

Was there anything you were surprised to learn about the Adamsons during the making of the film?

No, there wasn’t really anything that surprised me. I had only just read the book, so that is all I knew! Later I learned much more and I am aware that Joy often came in for strong criticism. I have to say that during the filming she was totally helpful and approachable. Following filming I spent an extraordinary three days with her in Meru. She was a passionate, sometimes unreasonable and volatile person but through her financial generosity three game parks were saved and look at the story she has left us. Of course, that story could not have happened without George, our lion man, loved and respected by us all. It was the two of them that made it happen – so different, yet bound together by their commitment to wild animals being able to live as nature intended – in the wild.

What do you feel is the biggest threat to animals in the wild today? Has it changed since Born Free was made?

Well, there is more threat to wild animals today than ever. Poaching, hunting, over fishing, poisoning, trapping, reduction of habitat (increased human population and therefore human/animal conflict), traditional Chinese medicine, climate change, capturing for zoos and circuses – the list is endless. Man’s insatiable need to own, to possess, to manipulate, to have everything his own way is wrecking the balance of nature. Some may say I see nature through “rose tinted glasses.” I refute that. I am a realist, and I believe that what we are doing to wild places and wild animals is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Some say nature is “red in tooth and claw.” That is one way of putting it. I call it survival. Sadly humans, without the survival element, have the reddest and sharpest teeth and claws of all.

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  • Lisa

    I am in Vancouver, Canada and was hoping to watch the special on Elsa and the lions. I am sad that it is unavailable in this area to view online! We get PBS here, so why not? Please let me know, thanks, Lisa

  • Julie Castell

    Such a lovely interview! Animal activists, animal lovers in general are criticized all too often. Humans are not the only living creatures :)

  • Rebecca Stager

    In the film, “Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story”, another wonderful gift, besides learning of the Adamsons and their work more intimately, was getting to experience Virginia McKenna at this time in her life. What a wise and lovely person she is. In addition to the great contributions to wild life she and her husband have made, she is a lovely force in the world, simply by being here. And to anyone who chances to read this comment, I recommend a great film of 1958, starring Virginia McKenna and Paul Scofield, called “Carve Her Name With Pride.” It is the true story of a valiant French-English woman during World War II.

  • peggy m Spates

    Virginia M is a wonderful woman. George Adamson died a tragic death…the bandits shot the lower portion of his face off as did Joy…one of her workers stabbed her to death. When I attended the Univ of Nairobi in 1971 hunting was still allowed in Kenya……poachers, hunters, disease, farmers and of course TOO MANY HUMANS will be the death of lions…….we have to fight to prevent this tragedy…from 500,000 in the early twenties down to 20,000 now…..horrible!!! Peggy Spates

  • Keon Robertson

    What an extraordinary person Virginia McKenna is, as was her late husband Bill Travers. Both incredible human beings who have contributed so much to wildlife conservation. Thank you, Virginia, for your valiant efforts. I, and other wildlife conservationists, will be forever in your debt for paving the way for the important work that must continue and for the wild animals for whom it must continue.

  • Robyn gilmore

    I am sorry that I mis read the information regarding the assimilation of christian the lion back into Africa and thought it was Geiorge Adamson when in fact it was Virgina McKennan and her husband Bill Travers who housed the lion in their garden and then they took him back to Africa and were instrumental in Christian returning to his “real home”.Congratulations to this wonderful couple for their work. Sadly I also read where Joyce had been murdered by a co worker, devestated to hear that news and also sad that Virginia has lost her husband Bill but her work continues with helping bring awareness and other project to help animals that are in danger from so many dangers to even becoming extinct. Thankyou Virginia and I wish you good health and a long life with many good moments in time and may what goes round come around to you in all things good.
    Robyn and Ian from the world down under

  • Krish Raghuram

    Africa was once stuffed with Animals, a few Bushmen, some Masai, Lions and miles of grass with a lone acacia, tall snowy peaks, wild rushing rivers, bountiful lakes, tawny savannahs and lush green tropical jungles. Now its stuffed with people and more people. It.is replete with disease, deprivation and violence. Animals take the brunt of this violence. Elephants and butchered with high velocity rifles and machine guns. An occasional elephant yearling that survives and is rehabilitated in a zoo or orphanage spends the remainder of its years in abject terror. After the Elephants are butchered, they teeth is yanked off its head with tree cutting saws and sent to China for the ivory carvers. The Rhinos suffer an even greater plight at the hands of the poachers. Their horns are sent to China to apparently make a local potion that cures cancer. The Lions are killed by trophy hunters and in South Africa, there is a govt program to kill lions whose bones are sent to China to make aphrodisiacs and medicines to invigorate men. Most of Africa is being plundered for resources and the Chinese are setting up ports and greasing the palms of greedy and corrupt politicians. In 20 years there won’t be anything left on this planet. We’ll be all by ourselves having amused ourselves to death from the killing. Perhaps then we’ll go after each other and continue the carnage. Is there humaneness left in humanity?

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