On Sunday, August 13, at 19h00, ITV Choice (DStv Channel 123) will be showing a not-to-be-missed documentary called Martin Clunes and a Lion Called Mugie, a one-hour special that sees the Doc Martin star joining a mission to return endangered lions to a remote part of Kenya.
It is 25 years since lions roamed in the Kora National Reserve where legendary conservationist George Adamson set up a camp to rescue lions and release them back into the wild. The heartbreaking but successful story of rescuing orphaned cub Elsa became internationally famous in the blockbuster film Born Free, based on the iconic book written by George’s wife Joy.
Tony Fitzjohn, who worked closely with Adamson, and continues to work in wildlife conservation, has lovingly rebuilt the original camp, Kampi Ya Simba, in the Kora National Reserve, abandoned after Adamson was murdered by Somali bandits in 1989. Fitzjohn picks up where he and Adamson left off all those years ago, with the aim of releasing captive and orphaned lions back into the wild with the support of the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Martin Clunes has had a close friendship with Fitzjohn since they met 20 years ago when they released Nina, a zoo elephant, back into the wild. In this documentary Clunes travels to Kenya to visit Fotzjohn and to meet his first lion cub to be brought to the Kora camp for 25 years.
Mugie, an orphaned lion cub was found when he was just three weeks old, washed up on a river bank after a flash flood. Clunes and Fitzjohn travel over 200 kilometres from Kora to Ol Jogi, a private game sanctuary for some of East Africa’s most endangered wildlife to collect Mugie. Thanks to an electric fence, the reserve is protected against poaching, allowing the wildlife to flourish. Jamie Gaymer, the reserve’s wildlife and security manager, has been looking after the cub he named Mugie after the place he was found, and contacted Fitzjohn to ask if he could take him.
Says Clunes: “Although elephants and rhinos get most of the publicity, lions in Africa are facing an equally serious crisis. While there are about 500,000, elephants, left on the continent, there are only 30,000 lions. If something isn’t done, they could die out in the wild in less than ten years.
“Three years ago a mission began to bring lions back to a remote Kenyan wilderness. From day one I have had the privilege of being a witness to this story. It’s one that stirred deep childhood memories, brought great highs and awful lows. This is the true story of one animal’s big adventure, and one man’s dream.”
Adds Fitzjohn: “In the 24 years I’ve been away, lions themselves are becoming an endangered species and it’s only in the centre of some very well protected areas or national parks you still get lions. But to be able to do something for lions again, in my world, if there’s a gap or an offer to do something, you just go for it. You can’t say no.”
Virginia McKenna, who starred as Joy Adamson, in Born Free, and joins Clunes in Kenya to re-visit the spot in Meru National Park where Elsa the famous lioness was released, says: “What this story tells you is that relationships between humans and wild animals can surmount all the sort of prejudices and fears and everything, and lift you out of yourself really; it is a spiritual thing. When you think they devoted all these years and that relationship was extraordinary and unique, I don’t think there’s ever been quite such a relationship as that and finally of course Elsa mated with a wild lion and then brought her children back.”
In the film Fitzjohn also talks candidly to Clunes about the horrific death of Adamson, and of his remorse that the murder happened when he was away in Tanzania.
“I felt so guilty when George was killed. I knew it was going to happen and then when he was killed I was just full of massive guilt and sadness and everything else. That was my job; to stop it happening.”