Article from USA Today, Part 1
Rhinos, dogs and a mad Englishman
in the sun After years of African adventure, Tony Fitzjohn finds his
calling: Saving 2 species
Tues., March 9, 1999
MKOMAZI GAME RESERVE, Tanzania
Nestled in an arid and endless carpet of acacia trees and commiphera
brush is one of the world's most endangered creatures.
Its name is Tony Fitzjohn.
|'I plan to die here': Tony Fitzjohn, who worked with big cats
for decades, since 1989 has labored to restore the 2,200-square-mile
Mkomazi Game Reserve and save two endangered species: the black
rhino and African hunting dog.
Part missionary, part madman, Fitzjohn, 54, belongs to a select species
of human that has sought both refuge and meaning in a life dedicated
to the preservation and restoration of the animal kingdom.
''I wasn't born here,'' says the British expatriate, who has called
Africa home for 33 years. ''But I plan to die here.''
Dedication is a must. Much like the USA's spotted owl debate, African
conservation is rife with political pitfalls and antagonistic factions.
Population explosions, ethnic strife and poaching threaten the planet's
richest animal resource more than ever before. And as last week's massacre
of tourists visiting Ugandan mountain gorillas shows, these issues could
decimate safari operations and destabilize national economies.
Africa has a tradition of drawing into this man-made fray disenchanted
foreigners who blossom in its epic wilderness. Dian Fossey lived and
died for her mountain gorillas. Fitzjohn's mentor, George Adamson, shared
a tragic love of Kenyan lions with his wife, Joy, author of Born
Fitzjohn, after two decades with big cats, has found his calling.
Since 1989, he has labored with Tanzanian government assent to restore
to ecological health the 2,200-square-mile Mkomazi (muko-MAH-see) Game
Reserve. Specifically, he is aiming for a resuscitation of two endangered
species: the black rhino and African hunting dog.
Considered a pest by Masai shepherds, the odd-looking hunting dog
could slip into history books. Fitzjohn has 42 dogs in a captive breeding
program and aims to restock unpopulated expanses such as the Serengeti
and Masai Mara.
The black rhino, however, presents a far more shocking picture of
human predation. In the past four decades, an estimated 95% of black
rhinos have fallen to poachers who hack off the rhino's snout to get
its horn, a solid mass of hair that, when ground into a powder, sells
in Asia for twice its weight in gold. The lure: its alleged medicinal
Fewer than 50 black rhinos roam east Africa; Fitzjohn has four and
hopes to increase their population at Mkomazi through captive breeding.
Movie in the making
The price of rescuing nature is high. Fitzjohn, who draws no salary
and has a staff of 30 Wapare tribesmen, has an annual operating budget
of about $200,000. He is funded by the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation
Trusts (www .izoo.org/mkomazi), based in London. Nearly half the Mkomazi
budget is covered by U.S. donors, many of them celebrities drawn to
Los Angeles fund-raisers led by regional trust president and Fitzjohn
pal Ali MacGraw.
Fitzjohn is no stranger to the USA, jetting in often with cap in hand.
He has testified on Capitol Hill for various wildlife departments and
guested on Dennis Miller's HBO talk show.
Soon more might know Fitzjohn's storybook tale, which includes liaisons
with adventurous women, bouts with the bottle and near-fatal tussles
with lions. A Canadian production company is seeking distribution for
To Walk With Lions, a feature film about George Adamson and Fitzjohn.
Conservationists often wrinkle their noses at such high-profile crusades,
but some acknowledge that, in their field, magnetism often is an invaluable
asset. ''People like Fitzjohn inspire future generations after they
leave,'' says Kate Newman, who monitors eastern and southern Africa
for the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund. ''A charismatic leader
is key to getting any project off the ground.''
In the case of Mkomazi, politics and conservation intermingle. Tanzanian
officials support Fitzjohn's efforts (but don't contribute financially)
because they envision a sanctuary that could generate critical tourism
On the opposing side are some of the area's Masai villagers, who view
these ancestral acres as prime cattle-grazing territory. Then there
are the machine-gun-toting poachers who stalk elephants and rhinos for
their ivory and horn.
Fitzjohn, by his own admission a man who once preferred to settle
scores with his fists, has learned to walk a political tightrope for
a beloved cause.
''If the Amazon is the world's lungs, then Africa is its heartbeat.
It needs help, and it needs supporting,'' he says. ''I'm enormously
grateful for the life I've led and lead. But I hope it's all working
toward my helping on a bigger level, rather than me just being a cowboy.''
When Fitzjohn arrived at Mkomazi in 1989, he found a parched landscape
blighted by overgrazing and poaching. His first mission was to set up
an infrastructure in the wild. He recruited a staff and set about using
a donated earthmover to plow airplane runways (he patrols the area by
Cessna) and erect stone buildings, including his three-room home, a
radio-communications center and a repair shop for the team's half-dozen
Seeds of survival
A few decades ago Fitzjohn and Adamson lived off the latter's $500
pension; now Fitzjohn must keep track of a massive array of bills and
But his efforts at turning a deserted plain into a living swatch of
land are beginning to see results. In 1995, Fitzjohn welcomed his first
batch of African hunting dog pups from a nearby Masai village to four
netted compounds sitting just below his house. Most of the dogs are
And two years ago, after Fitzjohn and company painstakingly set up
30 miles of electrified fence to form a secure compound, four rhinos
were flown in from a sanctuary in South Africa on a Russian cargo plane.
Fitzjohn suspects both females are pregnant.
''Part of me thinks, 'In a few years I'll be 60, and yet I feel like
I'm 28. This is crazy,' '' Fitzjohn says. ''But I love this part of
the world. I love the people. Those who work with me here do so because
they believe in what we're doing.''
Fitzjohn is about to complete a $100,000 school for the village nearest
his remote home base. He says locals deserve to feel that the Mkomazi
project benefits them as well as the wildlife.
But there is no questioning where his allegiance lies. No wondering
just which species -- human or animal -- he feels are in need of the
''We have to get away from the attitude of 'If it pays, it stays,'
because wildlife really will never pay for itself,'' he says.
''We need to help because we're in a position to do so. I'd love for
my son to grow up and do this, but in the end, I'll be happy just so
long as he pays his dues to the planet.''
Then Fitzjohn adds a final thought: ''We all have to constantly keep
watch over the environment, because when it goes, it's gone.''
TEXT OF BIO BOX BEGINS HERE:
THE FITZJOHN FILE
* Name: Tony Fitzjohn
* Born: July 7, 1945; grew up a foster child
in north London.
* Personal: Married to Lucy, 31; two children, Alexander,
3, and Jemima, 1.
* Title: Field director, George Adamson Wildlife
Preservation Trusts, with offices in London; New York; Los Angeles;
Rotterdam, Netherlands; and Munich, Germany.
* First job: Delivering milk in the London area
at age 21.
* Longest job: For 18 years, he helped George
Adamson of Born Free fame return more than 30 lions and
leopards to the wild in central Kenya.
* Current job: Since 1989 he has overseen the
2,200-square-mile Mkomazi Game Reserve in northern Tanzania, where
he is working to increase the numbers of African hunting dogs
and black rhinos.
* Brush with death: In 1975, he was attacked by
* Brush with fame: This year should see the release
of a Canadian film titled To Walk With Lions, starring
Richard Harris as George Adamson and British stage actor John
Michie as Fitzjohn.
* Fitzjohn on conservation: ''This generation
of Americans and Europeans are all talking about the environment.
My generation never did. We want to have education be a big part
of what we're doing at Mkomazi so that we can get them to take
up the fight.''
Destined for the wilds of Africa
There was something different about the young Tony Fitzjohn, something
impossibly restless. Born to a British serviceman and his brief paramour,
Fitzjohn was put into a foster home as a toddler and raised by solid
but unadventurous parents.
At the Mill Hill school north of London, he burned up his energy on
the rugby team. A photo of that motley crew hangs at Mkomazi.
Fitzjohn ''was never destined for a metropolitan life,'' says Andrew
Mortimer, a Mill Hill rugby friend who is the treasurer of the Adamson
Trusts, which in lean times were kept alive by contributions from a
dozen other teammates. ''He didn't like suits or cities.''
At 21, Fitzjohn shipped off to Cape Town, South Africa. He worked
odd jobs that included transporting uncut diamonds and working as a
bouncer at a brothel. Five years later, in 1971, he wrote to Joy Adamson
in Kenya. She mentioned that her husband, George, from whom she recently
had separated, could use assistance with his lion project at the Kora
Game Reserve in central Kenya.
What followed were 18 years lived with no brakes. The ''old man,''
as Adamson was known, and his rakish protege formed bonds with Earth's
most fearsome predator that couldn't be shaken even by a 1975 attack
that left Fitzjohn near death for two days.
His love for lions endures today. Jipe, a 7-month-old cub, is Fitzjohn's
charge at Mkomazi; he hopes to return her to the wild in a year.
Talking to Fitzjohn is like visiting a war veteran; many of the people
he talks about have been killed while working in Africa.
Fitzjohn and Adamson were operating in a part of Kenya that was constantly
invaded by Somali bandits and poachers. When Kenya's political stability
slipped in the early 1980s, the government could no longer guarantee
the duo's safety. Fitzjohn implored Adamson to come with him to Mkomazi
and start over, but Adamson would not leave his beloved Kora.
In 1989, Adamson was killed by three bandits wielding machine guns;
Joy had been killed in 1980 by one of her local workers. The guilt that
Fitzjohn carried with him (''I should have taken the heat for him,''
he says softly) has been transformed into determination.
''I still talk to the old man,'' Fitzjohn says. ''I do it all for
him, of course. If I didn't do this, I wouldn't be George's boy, now
Today, George's boy has grown up. Although always shirtless, looking
like some landlocked California surfing pioneer, Fitzjohn has a newfound
maturity that is crucial to running a complex operation such as Mkomazi.
He has been sober for seven years, though he is the owner of a vicious
chain-smoking habit. A few years ago he retired his bachelorhood, marrying
his longtime love, Lucy, 31, who has borne the couple two children and
serves as the project administrator.
USA TODAY articles: Part 1 | Part
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Copyright 1999, USA TODAY. Reprinted with permission.
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