The story of Christian the Lion, Devon’s most famous feline
PUBLISHED: 14:34 04 October 2019 | UPDATED: 15:02 04 October 2019
The tear-jerking story of Devon-born Christian the lion, bought from Harrods 50 years ago, has been captured in a new illustrated book. KATE WILLIAMS discovers the heart-warming tale of the shop-bought cub from Ilfracombe
Half a century ago, two men purchased a lion cub from the zoo department at Harrods at a time when exotic animals were allowed to be sold in the UK. That cub had been born to its captive parents at Ilfracombe Zoo and sold to the London store for resale.
Luckily for that little cub, two Australians - John Rendall and Ace Bourke - decided to buy that little caged wild `cat and vowed to give him a better life.
They did and the story, along with some amazing and never-before-seen pictures, has now been published in a captivating new book by John Rendall and former Fleet Street photographer Derek Cattani.
Christian was one of four cubs born to Butch and Mary, two captive lions at Ilfracombe Zoo, which was operated from 1949 until 1973 by owner Charles Trevisick in the grounds of Comyn Hill House.
Two of the cubs were sold to Harrods for resale and it was from here that Christian's life changed and a legacy was created.
John says of that day when he walked into the Knightsbridge store: "Our visit to Harrods was prompted by pure curiosity, we hadn't intended to buy anything. But when we saw the beautiful lion cub for sale that day...I blurted the words that would change my life forever, 'Why don't we buy him?'"
For a year, Christian lived in John's London flat where Derek began photographing him. It was the start of an extraordinary journey that saw Christian successfully rehabilitated into the wild in Kenya by George Adamson, of Born Free legend.
After a year apart, John and Ace missed Christian so much that they decided to visit him in Africa, although they were told he had become the head of a pride and was now a completely wild animal.
They were discouraged to visit by experts and told they would be putting their lives at great risk as Christian would never remember them. They ignored the advice and found their lion.
The moving and emotional footage of that reunion a year after Christian's release into the wild has become one of the most-watched YouTube clips.
In the book, John and Derek revisit the remarkable story and show how Christian has inspired a lifetime of conservation.
Now passionate wildlife advocates, John and Derek's book brings the remarkable story to the present day featuring scores of unpublished pictures.
Importantly, it shows how Christian has inspired a lifetime of conservation including the work of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust which John helped found and which operates mostly in Mkomazi National Park.
Mkomazi's field director, Tony Fitzjohn, was George Adamson's assistant in Kenya and was there when Christian was. Today, Mkomazi is recognised as one of the most successful conservation projects in Africa and Tony has said that none of it would have happened without Christian - he was the start.
John Rendall says: "Who could ever have imagined that a lion cub born in Ilfracombe would be returned to the wild by the guru of lions, George Adamson?
"In 1969, when we took Christian to Kenya, there were an estimated 400,000 wild lions in Africa.
"As this book goes to press, there are probably fewer than 20,000. In less than 50 years, the lion population has plummeted by more than 90 per cent. Hopefully Christian's legacy will raise awareness of the threat to all wildlife."
Christian the Lion: The Illustrated Legacy By John Rendall and Derek Cattani is published by Bradt Travel Guides, paperback £14.99
AN EXTRA BITE
- Australian-born John Rendall first came to London in the late 1960s and it was there that he first came across Christian, lying in a cage in Harrods department store. John has since remained involved with wildlife conservation, helping found the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, which today manages Kora National Park in Kenya and Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania, recognised as one of the most successful conservation projects in Africa. A patron of LionAid, John is still based in Chelsea
- Derek Cattani is an international award-winning photographer; whose career spans some four decades on assignment for many top magazines and Fleet Street newspapers. The highlight of his early career was meeting and photographing Christian and going with him and his owners to Africa
- To donate to the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, visit georgeadamson.org/donate