Elsa the lioness

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Elsa (c. January 1956 – January 24, 1961) was a Kenya lioness raised (along with her sisters "Big One" and "Lustica") by game warden George Adamson and his wife Joy Adamson after they were orphaned, when only a few weeks old, by the death of their mother. Though her two sisters eventually went to the Netherlands' Rotterdam Zoo, Elsa was trained by the Adamsons to survive on her own, and was eventually released into the wild.

Her story is told in several books by the Adamsons, as well as the motion picture Born Free (1966).


Elsa and her sisters were orphaned after George Adamson was forced to kill their mother when she charged him—​in defense of her three cubs, he later realized. The Adamsons then adopted the cubs.

While Elsa lived in many ways like a domesticated pet when she was small, Joy Adamson, whom Elsa trusted the most, considered her relationship with Elsa to be that of equals. Indeed, Joy was fiercely determined to give Elsa the education she needed to hunt and live in the wild. Her efforts paid off, earning Elsa worldwide fame at the time, when her life's story, up to this point, was published in the book Born Free. When Elsa was three years old, she brought three cubs of her own to show to the Adamsons, whom the Adamsons named "Jespah" (male), "Gopa" (male), and "Little Elsa" (female). The life of Elsa and her cubs is covered in the book, Living Free, published not long afterwards.

Elsa's life was cut short, however, when she succumbed to Babesia felis, a form of babesiosis, a tick-borne blood disease somewhat similar in character to malaria, which often infects members of the cat family. Elsa's grave is located in the Meru National Park. Her death occurred as local sentiment began to turn against Elsa and her cubs, forcing the Adamsons to consider relocation for the cubs. Elsa's death made her cubs much more averse to human contact, even with the Adamsons themselves, complicating what would be their capture and ultimate release in the Serengeti. The fate of the cubs upon their release was uncertain, though George Adamson was able to find Little Elsa alive, healthy, and in the company of two other unrelated lions during 19 months of subsequent searching.[1] Though this was the last that the Adamsons would ever see one of Elsa's cubs, they hoped that Elsa's descendants would continue to live on in the Serengeti.


  • Born Free 1960 – Written by Joy Adamson; Library of Congress Catalog Card #60-6792
  • Living Free 1961 – Written by Joy Adamson; Library of Congress Catalog Card #61-15810
  • Forever Free 1962 – Written by Joy Adamson; Library of Congress Catalog Card #63-8081
  • Bwana Game (UK Title) 1968, A Lifetime With Lions (USA Title) 1970 – Written By George Adamson
  • My Pride and Joy 1986 – Written By George Adamson – ISNS 978-0-00-272518-7 0 00 272518 5.


  • Elsa the Lioness (1961), 29 minutes; BBC documentary produced and narrated by David Attenborough. Footage includes Joy and George Adamson searching for a wounded Elsa and her three cubs. Joy Adamson recounts the visit of filmmakers, David Attenborough and Jeff Mulligan in her book Living Free.[2]
  • Born Free (1966), 95 minutes; starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna – George Adamson was the technical advisor. Directed by James Hill. Academy Awards winner and Golden Globe Awards winner.[3]
  • Living Free (1972), starring Susan Hampshire and Nigel Davenport, based not on the book by the same name, but on the third book of the series, Forever Free.
  • Elsa and Her Cubs, 25 minutes; Extremely rare film footage of Elsa and her cubs Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa and includes Joy and George Adamson. Although the film begins by saying the narrator is George Adamson, it is not George Adamson speaking.[3]
  • Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story (2010), 53 minutes; Documentary marking the 50th anniversary of Joy Adamson's book Born Free. Including home footage of Elsa and her cubs shot by the Adamsons, and interviews with Virginia McKenna and David Attenborough.


  1. ^ Adamson, George. A Lifetime With Lions. New York: Avon Books, 1968.
  2. ^ Adamson, Joy (1961). Living Free. Fontana Books. p. 142. 
  3. ^ a b "Books – Films – Movies by or about George and Joy Adamson"

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