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Raising Christian: The lion that grew up in 1960s West London

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In 1969, King's Road shop owners John Rendall and Anthony "Ace" Bourke bought a lion cub from Harrods - and the rest is history.

Christian Demands Attention/ Image Credit: Derek Cattani from Bradt Travel Guides

Today, it seems shocking that such exotic animals would be for sale to keep in London. But John reveals that such practices were not uncommon in the 60s: “There was a chap in Battersea who had a puma, it was all very relaxed,” he tells me.

In fact, such operations were not made illegal until the 1976 Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act.

I ask John about the first day he and Ace saw Christian in Harrods: “We just saw these two beautiful creatures in what appeared to be a fairly unsatisfactory situation," he says. "We enquired what they intended to do with them and found out that they were for sale.”

John reveals that there were, in fact, two lion cubs for sale at the time in Harrods - one male and one female.

“Before they [Harrods] would consider accepting any buyers they wanted us to come in and see them when the store was closed," John says. "So we used to go in and have a look. We wanted initially to buy both of the cubs, but it was too expensive and not realistic.” The price of one cub would have equated to around £3,500 in today’s money.

John and Ace decided just to purchase the male cub, and named him Christian. However, before they could close the deal they had to prove to Harrods that they would be able to not only afford Christian, but also provide him with the space he would need. John and Ace had arrranged for Christian to have a whole floor to himself below their shop in Chelsea, and “just up the road was a cemetery and the vicar very kindly agreed that we could exercise him there.

“The whole thing was an expensive exercise and was really based upon the fact that he was such an amazing animal,” John says.

Soon after, the pair brought Christian home to the pine furniture shop that they ran along with three others in Chelsea. The shop itself had two floors, with a further three above and one floor below, which was where Christian was to live.

"Christian was extremely intelligent," John says. "He had moods; you could see them, and he had a terrific sense of humour. If someone was frightened of him he could tell, and was always very intrigued."

The shop's owners became, John says, Christian's “human pride."

 Christian makes himself at home in the garden

Christian makes himself at home in the bathroom/ Image Credit: Derek Cattani from Bradt Travel Guides

“Lions are the only big cats who live in a family. Within that family everyone has a position and they work together to hunt. They are the most canine of all the big cats, and will adapt to find a new family and are very capable of fitting in with that situation.

"He was never lonely; whenever he was awake there was someone with him”.


Christian attracts young admirers as he heads out in the Bentley.
Christian attacts young admirers as he heads out in the Bentley. Image Credit: Derek Cattani from Bradt Travel Guides.

I asked John if he and Ace had planned to reintroduce Christian to the wild from day one.

“We didn’t have an end plan when we initially bought Christian," John says. "We were talking to Longleat (Safari Park) initially; we knew he couldn't live in Chelsea forever. Although he wasn't dangerous at all, there could have been an accident. We were just concerned because he was so heavy that he might lean against a window or something. We spoke to numerous places in the country.

 

“One day Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna from the film Born Free came into the shop to buy a pine desk - when they met Christian they said he was quite extraordinary - they'd been working with circus lions in the film, who had come from a very different environment. They contacted George Adamson from Born Free and asked him if he’d be interested in rehabilitating Christian."

 

John and Ace were concerned because Christian had been bred in Ilfracombe, Devon, having come from generations of lions in captivity. John laughs, saying that rather than harbouring wild tendencies “he only knew what a 22 bus looked like.

 

“But we thought, let’s give him a chance. George Adamson was a man who knew more about lions than anyone in the land." After some conversation,"we flew Christian out to Kenya and gave him to George".


George Adamson at Kora with Christian and Katania.
George Adamson at Kora with Christian and Katania/ Image Credit: Derek Cattani from Bradt Travel Guides.

John explains to me how Christian arrived in the hot climate with a thick winter coat on, courtesy of the cold British weather. George just looked at the trio and said, "My god you're a hairy looking lot aren't you!" 

George began working with Christian and within a year he was head of his own pride. A year later John and Ace returned and were told that the young lion was now fully wild and may not recognise them. However, as we all know thanks to the video Christian the Lion, which went viral in 2008, this was not the case. 

Christian is reunited with John and Ace in a moment that was to captivate millions of viewers on YouTube twenty-seven years later.

Christian is reunited with John and Ace in a moment that was to captivate millions of viewers on YouTube 27 years later/Image Credit: Simon Trevor from Bradt Travel Guides.

John returned only once more to see Christian after their initial reunion. Although he and Ace both missed Christian, they could celebrate - the rehabilitation into the wild had been a success!

"We went back a year later and he was just as affectionate but more on his terms," John says. "In human terms, he was a teenager now. He was much more busy with the lionesses than with us. Then the next year I went back by myself and he had gone. It was the sign of a successful rehabilitation. He didn't need us anymore and had crossed over the river.

John with Christian on Kora Rock, enjoying a fine view of the reserve, 1972.

John with Christian on Kora Rock, enjoying a fine view of the reserve, 1972./ Image Credit: Tony Fitzjohn (Gawpt) from Bradt Travel Guides.

"I have friends who live around there. Becuase Chrisitan was not indigenous to the area he was distinctive from the local lions and I still get photos today sent to game lodgers who say, "we've just seen a lion with Christian's genes!' "

Did Christian and his rehabilitation inspire John's love for conservation?

"This is where it all led up to," John says. "Once Christian was successfully establised in Kenya, George Adamson continued to rehabilitate lions for 14 years."

However, in 1989, George Adamson was murdered by Somalian poachers. John, along with others, formed a trust in Geroge's memory. This trust - entitled The George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust - still exists and is, "involved in conservation with various animals and working with local people.

"It is absolutely crucial that locals are singing on the same song sheet as you," John says.

The trust is based in Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania, and has helped to build "11 schools around the park, and last year a technical college.

"At Mkomazi there's no oil, uranium, gold, diamonds, it's of no interest to big business or industry, so the only asset they have is wildlife".

Mkomazi National Park, Tanzania

Mkomazi National Park, Tanzania/ Image Credit: Nicola Avery from Wikipedia

John explains to me how as a result, conservation is their only source of income. Such projects are bringing in this money, which helps the economy: "That's what this new book (Christian the Lion: the Illustrated Legacy) is all about; it's Christian's legacy. If we hadn't taken him out [to Kenya], George Adamson would not have had a project and the trust would not have been founded. The National Park in Tanzania would not exist in its current form."

As Christian greets John, the lioness Mona – barely habituated to humans – approaches to join in the fun.

As Christian greets John, the lioness Mona - barely habituated to humans - approaches to join in the fun./ Image Credit: Simon Trevor from Bradt Travel Guides.

The aim of such a project is to create an environment where the local people and wildlife coexist, living in harmony. Such conservation projects involve educating the local people on how to attain this equality, as well as protecting the parks from poachers. However, such projects are very expensive. Although technology is now helping, there is still a lot more to be done. 

The decline of wildlife

John reveals the desperation of the current situation in Africa: "When we first took Christian to Kenya, there were 400,000 lions living on the continent. Now, there are 20,000."

John identifies the causes for such a large and rapid decline as the expansion of usage of land, caused by population increase. Such expansion eats into the lion's territory, which is not good news for them as it causes a competitiveness that was not there before.

"In 50 years, 60% of the world's wildlife has vanished, which is very depressing really." John's new book has been written with the intention of raising more awareness of the rapid decline that we are now seeing in the world's wildlife. It is a strong reminder that if we do not take action soon, a lot of the beauty we see in nature is facing an irreversible destruction.

John Rendall's book Christian the Lion: the Illustrated Legacy is out now priced £14.99 from www.stanfords.co.uk  

John Rendall will be speaking at Stanfords’ Travel Writers Festival at Destinations: the Holiday and Travel Show, 31st January – 3rd February 2019 at Olympia London. 

Click here to read more on animal conservation from the National Student, as well as from our Environment section.

Lead Image: Derek Cattani for Bradt Travel Guides




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