Internationally renowned environmentalist tells the story of his passion to save the animals and ecosystems of Africa.
Tony Fitzjohn recently stopped in Los Angeles to promote his new autobiography, “Born Wild.” The book includes his early life, but centers on the last forty years ― the time he spent living in East Africa, working for the preservation of African wildlife and the restoration of one of the great ecosystems of the world.
When the book tour is completed, Fitzjohn, invited by the government of Kenya, will return to Kora National Park, where his journey began in 1971 when he started working with George Adamson of Born Free fame. His return to Kora will mark a full circle for Fitzjohn, who has spent the past 22 years in Tanzania rebuilding what is now the Mkomazi National Park.
Fitzjohn’s interest in Africa began when he was a young boy growing up in a working class suburb of north London. A month in bed with Typhus gave him an opportunity to read Tarzan Of The Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs ― multiple times. In between the fever and the cold sweats, he fell in love with the land and the animals, and developed what he refers to as his “call to Africa.” Fitzjohn considers it ironic that his passion was ignited by a writer who never once stepped foot on African soil.
Fitzjohn knew he was home when he landed in Africa in 1968, leaving behind his wild days and nights from Carnaby Street to Abbey Road ― along with all the lovely “dolly birds.” He also sensed things were about to get really wild.
Yet those who follow their passion often find opportunities appearing in many shapes and sizes, guiding them on their journey. A hero seizes the moment, chooses those opportunities wisely, and in doing so, is led to his kingdom.
From the very moment he met George Adamson at Kampi ya Simba (Camp of Lions) in Kora, Kenya, he knew his life’s work was there, at the foot of a 65-year-old man who walked around bare-chested, talking to lions.
Fitzjohn’s own love affair with lions and leopards sparked, and he learned about the challenges faced by peaceful animal habitats from trophy-seeking poachers. Not to mention dealing with a government that had yet to understand the value of its wildlife ― both economically and spiritually ― and the ever-increasing human population that continues to challenge the ecological balance of power.
In 1989, the Tanzanian government invited Fitzjohn to come to a neglected game reserve called Mkomazi. Almost single handedly, he set out to rebuild the park. The reserve’s 1,350 square-miles of desert savannah needed to be rebuilt and revitalized.
The task was daunting. The reserve needed vast infrastructure construction ― including roads, airstrips, ranger outposts, animal protection pens, water, power ― the works. There was also the need for community outreach, local school construction, environmental education and eco-development. It took 21 years of hard work, but culminated with Mkomazi achieving National Park status in 2010.
Today Mkomazi includes a preservation program for the African Wild Dog and the Black Rhino, both critically endangered species. The population of the Black Rhino, which numbered about 100,000 in 1960, has sadly been reduced to about 3,000 due mainly to poachers who hunt them for their horns, prized in some cultures for the supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities.
Fitzjohn has been invited back to Kora with the intention that he’ll be able to replicate there, what he did in Mkomazi. By restoring George Adamson’s original camp and developing the infrastructure of the park to provide safe passage for the great animal migrations. There’s also the need to create a greater understanding and appreciation for animal conservation and environmentalism among the locals. By teaching Africans to love and protect their land, Fitzjohn feels he will see his mentor’s dream come true, as well as his own.
Proud that he hasn’t received a paycheck since 1971, Fitzjohn has made a life for himself that includes such wonders as becoming close friends with several lions, leopards and at least one tiger. He was honored by the Queen of England with an OBE (Order of the British Empire) award, built schools and health clinics in the towns and villages bordering Mkomazi – and at times, been mauled by the lions he loves. He has lived more in his lifetime than many do in several. Now 65-years-old, (the age George Adamson was when they first met) Fitzjohn is still going strong.
The best part is that Fitzjohn went for his dream. He didn’t say “when I,” as in when I make enough money, when I’ve achieved success, when I find the right mate. And he didn’t go looking for love, he allowed it to find him. Tony Fitzjohn, has been called many things: adventurer, activist, environmentalist and lion whisperer (one he loathes), but what he should be called is the patron saint of following one’s passion.
Born Wild is a good and easy read. It grabs you immediately because Fitzjohn’s heart is on every page. He lays it out directly, his wit and voice intact. You are there and don’t want to miss a thing.
For further information on Tony Fitzjohn and Mkomazi, and how you might become involved, please go to http://www.wildlifenow.com/.
Copyright © Annie O’Neill Stein / 2011 Singular Communications, LLC.