He began as a Boy Scout, became a hippie, hitchhiked to Africa, & made himself useful.
Tony Fitzjohn, 76, died on May 23, 2022, “following a prolonged fight against a malignant cancer,” the Tony Fitzjohn-Wildlife Now George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust announced.
Fitzjohn recounted most of his long career working on behalf of African wildlife in his 310-page memoir Born Wild, published in 2010.
“Growing up in England, Fitzjohn loved Scouting. Tarzan tales enchanted him,” summarized reviewer Debra J. White. “As a troubled teen, Fitzjohn landed in Outward Bound programs. A letter Fitzjohn sent to Born Free author Joy Adamson brought Fitzjohn to Kenya,” by hitchhiking.
Assistant to George Adamson
In 1971, at age 24, Fitzjohn became assistant to Adamson’s then-husband, 65-year-old conservationist George Adamson.
Fitzjohn, as a full-time volunteer, helped Adamson to rehabilitate injured or formerly captive lions, leopards, and African wild dogs for return to the wild. Tracking animals post-release was among his duties and was considerably more difficult and dangerous than it is today because radio collars had not yet been developed.
Once, in 1975, “I was incredibly lucky to survive,” Fitzjohn wrote. “My attacker’s teeth had come within millimetres of both my carotid and jugular arteries. There are holes in my throat that I could put a fist through, and I did.”
After several months of recovery Fitzjohn returned to help George Adamson at his camp called Kora, located east of Mount Kenya, near the Tana River, almost in the dead centre of the nation.
Kenya “became a scary place”
Conflicts with poachers and illegal grazers at Kora intensified after a border conflict between Kenya and Somalia in 1978. Somalia lost the war but, Fitzjohn remembered, “There were suddenly a lot of well-armed Somali men flooding across the border into northern Kenya. They were bandits, well-trained, ruthless and armed.”
“Another camp near Kora was attacked and everything of value was looted. Two workers were killed. Poaching escalated,” White wrote.
“The Kenyan government was either unwilling or unable to stop the raiding, despite warnings that wildlife tourism could be destroyed. Political unrest, corruption, drought, and tribal strife plagued Kenya for more than a decade,” White continued.
Understated Fitzjohn, “Kenya had suddenly become a scary place.”
Murders brought move to Tanzania
The Kora camp site eventually became the hub of the Kora National Reserve, initially designated in 1973 but not added to the Kenyan national park system until 1989, after George Adamson came to the aid of a tourist who had been robbed and gang-raped by poachers. Adamson was murdered while racing his jeep straight at the bad guys, who fled.
Joy Adamson had already been killed in a confrontation with an ex-employee in January 1980.
Of George Adamson’s murder, Fitzjohn said, “If I had been there, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Fitzjohn had left, temporarily, to assess the prospects for restoring the huge Mkomazi Game Reserve in Tanzania, south of Tsavo National Park in Kenya.
Fitzjohn said of Kora – Life at Kora was one of overwhelming isolation. The camp was situated two days’ travel from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, and conditions were basic. Aside from a few camp employees and George’s brother Terence, Adamson and Fitzjohn would go months at a time without being visited by an outsider. The work was everything.
“Our whole life was based around the lions: their health, their survival, their coping with going back to the wild. I became a self-taught mechanic, and I learned to maintain all the vehicles. I would also do the supply trips to Garissa [the Somali Kenyan capital], though god knows why the bandits didn’t take me out,” Fitzjohn laughs.
“The police would get shot up, even the commissioner would get shot up. And there I was, a heathen, storming down with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other, the ghetto blaster booming. But they never touched me. I think there was someone up there looking after me. And I’ve always been prepared to take my chances for what I thought was worthwhile.”
Fitzjohn soon became Kora’s de facto PR man and fixer: dealing with the local authorities, talking to the police, keeping things cordial. “It mainly involved a lot of drinking in the police mess and the army mess in Garissa,” he says. “Drinking was a big part of life out there, I suppose, though not so much in the bush.”
At one point, Fitzjohn thought two policemen were trailing him through the city — so he hid in an alleyway and ambushed them, taking them both out with fists flailing. That afternoon, he discovered that they’d been sent to look over him and protect him, should anything turn nasty.
“So I had to go and apologise to them at the station. Well: that turned into a long night on the beers, didn’t it…” he says, slightly sheepishly. “It was the Wild West, in many ways. But the Wild West with Land Rovers.”
Having worked with Adamson for 18 years, but at odds with himself after the murder, Fitzjohn soon afterward moved to Mkomazi.
Mkomazi, in Fitzjohn’s own words, was “the perfect place for me to bury myself and reinvent myself after the events of the past few years.”
Mkomazi Game Reserve
There, said the Tony Fitzjohn-Wildlife Now George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust statement announcing Fitzjohn’s death, “His main, towering achievement was the rehabilitation of Mkomazi.
“This was at the invitation of the Tanzanian Government in 1989,” the Tony Fitzjohn-Wildlife Now George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust continued. “In the next thirty years, he enlisted a formidable group of supporters, experts and famous institutions in what became an international beacon for conservation of land and wildlife.”
Fitzjohn “created programs for endangered species, including the African wild dog, and one of the most successful rhino sanctuaries in Africa, and pioneered educational programs in the local communities,” the Tony Fitzjohn-Wildlife Now George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust memorial statement finished.
Frustrated by the corruption of the John Magafuli regime in Tanzania, Fitzjohn returned management of Mkomazi to the Tanzanian government in 2020 and returned to Kenya to work on rehabilitating Kora.
Magafuli, ironically, who had been the most vehement COVID-19 denier in Africa, died of COVID-19 in March 2021.
Fitzjohn was admitted to the Order of the British Empire in 2006. He also received the Prince Bernhard Order of the Golden Ark, the North of England Zoological Society’s Gold Medal and the Hanno Ellenbogen Citizenship Award for public service.
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