The Luxury Channel caught up with John Rendall and Derek Cattani to hear the incredible story of Christian the lion, who was bought originally by Rendall and his friend Ace Bourke from Harrods in London in the 1960s for 250 guineas. Christian lived his early life in Chelsea, travelling by Mercedes and eating in the finest restaurants before his eventual release into the wilds of Africa. The film of John and Ace’s reunion in 1971 with Christian the Lion has gone viral with more than 100 million views on You Tube alone. Rendall has continued to keep Christian’s legacy alive and continues to raise awareness of the threat to lions and wildlife. He helped found the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust which today manages Kora National Park in Kenya, and Mkomazi National Park in Tanzania, which is recognised as one of the most successful conservation projects in Africa. John is also Patron of Lion Aid. Derek Cattani is an award-winning international photographer, who photographed Christian in his early career, and who went with Rendall and Burke to Africa in 1972, when they returned to find Christian. Here, the two men tell us their remarkable, incredible true story….
How did you come to acquire Christian in the first place?
JOHN: Ace and I bought Christian at Harrods when we were living in Chelsea. I’d come from Australia to London because that’s where everyone wanted to be. You know, this was swinging London and everything was happening here – fashion, music and art. One of the things we hadn’t planned to do, however, was buy a lion, but we walked into Harrods and there were these two lion cubs for sale. After some negotiation, we managed to secure the purchase of one of those lions. In those days, Harrods closed at 5:30pm every afternoon, but we were able to go in and play with them after hours. It was then that we realised pretty quickly that two lions would be too much to look after, so we just bought the one lion cub, and we called him Christian. It was shortly after that that Derek came into the picture. He’s an extremely experienced professional photographer who came to a party one night and asked me if he could take pictures of Christian. So, thank heavens we now have this wonderful record of Christian’s life.
DEREK: I was a young freelance Fleet Street photographer and always on the hunt for an interesting picture story. When I heard John and Ace’s story, about buying a lion from Harrods and taking it for walks down the Kings Road, I just knew I had to meet this cub.
He was then a three-month-old cuddly cub with the most amazing eyes and sharp teeth. I realised that I would have to get to know this beautiful little cub if I was to get good photographs so instead of grabbing my camera and shooting away, I just sat on the floor and watched him, and waited. Eventually curiosity overcame him and after a short while, Christian inched his way towards me and then pushed his head onto mine. John explained that this was a sure sign of welcome so over the following weeks, I made regular visits and slowly gained Christian’s trust, and John and Ace’s approval of my patient attitude towards Christian. They saw that I was not just after a snarling one-off picture of him for a newspaper feature, so offered me the job as Christian’s official photographer. He was such a loving animal with such piercing eyes, they could almost look through you. I remember being in the Sophisticat furniture shop [on the Kings Road in Chelsea, where Rendall worked], which was very popular in those days, and John sold this particular table to a lady in Chelsea when Christian ran out, jumped on the table and scratched it all the way down. John was freaking out, saying, “God, what are we going to do?!” So he says to the lady, “I’m terribly sorry, but we can’t deliver this table to you today.” And she said, “why not?” And John said, “Because Christian jumped on it and it’s scratched all the way down the middle!” Despite the scratches, the lady insisted on taking the table and still has it today.
What problems did you face day-to-day with Christian?
DEREK: Christian became quite expensive – pieces of meat and big bones which we got from the local butchers’ plus various amounts of high protein mixtures from the pet shop and stuff like that. I said to John, you know, we’ve got to get some money going on here. There was always a quirky thing around Easter time where the newspapers used to try and out-do each other with pictures of pussy cats and rabbits and chickens being hatched. So I said, what about a picture of Christian? I went to my sister’s farm and she got some chicks for me. I rushed back to London where John was waiting for me, and we put Christian up on the table and put the little chicks around him and he didn’t touch one of them. They were all absolutely perfect. Some had actually just hatched as well. I don’t know what the chicks thought of actually seeing a lion for the first time ever, but we were paid very well for the picture. It was published in all but a couple of the national tabloids, but we never pushed Christian to do anything he didn’t naturally want to do.
JOHN: We also did a picture with our friend James Hunt, who at the time was just starting his racing career. We took Christian down to see James and the caption was “The King of The Jungle Meets The King of The Road.” It was a fun thing to do, and a lot of fun with James, and it was a lovely picture to give to the newspapers.
When did things change for Christian?
JOHN: He was really getting a little bit too big to be living in the shop. When he was smaller, people would come in and say, “Oh, we just want to come and see him!” But when he got to this stage, suddenly people would say “I think I’ll come back tomorrow.” It was at this point when Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers came in, who made Born Free. They came into the shop to buy a table and I said, “Mr. Travers, I think I’ve got something more interesting for you.” They came downstairs to meet Christian and they were quite astounded. You would never know what a tough time they had making Born Free. They were both injured by the lions. They were circus lions and so, behind every shot, there was someone with a whip who could control them. It was a very difficult film to make and they both did an extraordinarily good job to make it look so easy. So they really couldn’t believe that Christian was such an amenable chap. They asked us what we were going to do with him, and at that stage, he was probably going to go to Longleat. They thought about it and contacted George Adamson in Kenya and said “look, we’ve run into a couple of guys. They’ve got this lion that’s a year old, but he’s getting too big for London – what would you suggest?” By extraordinary coincidence, George told them that Boy, who was one of the lions that they used in Born Free, had been injured. So he was happy to rehabilitate Christian, as he needed to build a pride around Boy. He said to Bill, “Well, ask the boys if they would be happy for me to attempt to rehabilitate Christian.” The only thing was that Christian is a fifth-generation domesticated lion, so we had no idea whether he whether he would still have survival instincts. But that’s when the idea first originated in terms of taking him back to Kenya.
DEREK: We didn’t know what Christian’s chances would be in the wild, but we decided we would go for it because after all, George Adamson was the guru of lions. He’d rehabilitated Elsa with great success and we knew he was the top man for the job.
What happened when Christian went to Kenya?
JOHN: He was 35 pounds when we bought him, but he’d gone up to 145 pounds in a year – that’s how well-fed he was! We had to insure him for a million pounds, in case he did any damage. We arrived from England, and George was there and he just said, “You’re a very hairy lot, aren’t you?!” We took Christian for his first ride in a Land Rover – so no more Mercedes. So that was a bit of a shock for him! And Christian’s first night in Africa was slightly embarrassing – he had his head on a pillow with his paw in my face!
DEREK: Christian was completely happy for me to move him around and put him in the right positions to take pictures. That’s why we got some great photographs. There’s a picture of him first walking in Africa, and of course, he had to toughen his paws up. He’d been running around in Moravian Close in Chelsea on the grass and suddenly, he’s in Africa where the ground is very prickly and tough. So, he had to adapt. At one point, we were looking out over the Tana River, which is a beautiful wide river, but there were crocodiles and hippos swimming around and so he had to be pretty careful. But he was absolutely fascinated by it. Although he wouldn’t let the boys out of his sight. Christian would always be jumping up to make sure that John was there. It was sensational to experience.
JOHN: We had to take him for walks to toughen his feet up. There was a little lion cub called Katania that had been given to George and who was the first lion that Christian had seen since he was in Harrods. She was about the size of Christian when we first got him. In many ways, he was still a baby – he still had his petty spots on him – so it was quite fun. But it was a bit of a shock because Christian always had four meals a day and suddenly he’s out here, he’s eating his meal and this little cub comes and takes it away. What was that all about?! He had never experienced that before.
DEREK: George would take Christian, Katania and Boy, the lion that was used in Born Free, out walking every day. There’s a marvellous story about how Boy would walk first, then the little cub Katania, then Christian and then George behind with a gun, just in case something went astray. So one day they’re walking and see a rhino. Boy takes one look at the rhino and just veers off to the left, well clear of it, and Katania just follows Boy. But Christian’s never seen a rhino and keeps going. George thinks, “Oh my God, Christian, stop, stop, stop!” Rhinos, you know, are very short-sighted, so this one looks up and sees this preposterous cub stalking him. Next thing George saw was a huge amount of dust and Christian flying through the air. He doesn’t know whether it was horned or whether Christian jumped as the rhino charged past, but George was absolutely furious. Then he looked over and there was Boy, and Boy was looking back at Christian, and George said he knew what Boy was saying – it was: “you effing idiot!”
What was it like going back to Kenya after a year to see Christian?
JOHN: It was like when you walk into a room where you haven’t seen someone for a year, but you know that they’re pleased to see you there. It was like that, and it was fantastic to see him. We could tell he was fine and that he was pleased to see us from his body language – the only danger was, you know, he’s now over 250 pounds running towards us at 25 miles an hour!
DEREK: The reunion with Christian was fantastic and amazing, I remember that, but there is a really interesting photograph of one of the lionesses he was with. She’d never been touched by humans before and George said it’d be completely impossible for her to create a relationship with other people, as she had been mistreated in the past. So we would need to be persistent, as she never came into camp – she would be outside. But she came down with Christian and somehow, it was as if he could say to her, “listen, this is part of my game.” That is the extraordinary intelligence and power of communication they’ve got. George was so proud.
JOHN: George was building up the pride the whole time. Over the next 18 years, George rehabilitated 23 lions. When we first took Christian out to give to George, Joy Adamson was very cynical about the chances of doing it and she said, “you know, it’s just not going to work – he’s too fat, he’s too old.” In the end, Christian won her over and she couldn’t wait to be photographed with him. A year or so later and he’s now probably 350 pounds and absolutely getting to a point where he’s ready to leave his pride, which is what would happen in the wild. Every so often, he’d come back into camp and George was there, just to reassure him, but it was becoming more and more infrequent. This is exactly what George wanted to see. He would often hear Christian grunting from the bush as if just to say, “I’m over here somewhere.” He was a big boy by then. This is the last photograph we have of him, before he disappeared into the wild. He went upstream, crossing the river to find his own new territory. We know that his genes went on, but he was never seen again. He had a good life, probably up to 14 or 15 years old, as they do live that long. He certainly wasn’t poached because if he’d been poached, he would have been the biggest trophy in the whole area, and someone would have been bragging about it. So we believe that he did survive, and there are lions that turn up occasionally that look like Christian. But unfortunately, we don’t have his DNA.
DEREK: Christian was a good-looking boy, wasn’t he?
JOHN: Yes, although he was not a year-old cub when we rehabilitated him. He was like a two-year-old, because he had never missed a meal so we know his strength and his health was to his advantage. Why didn’t we let him loose in a different area? Well, because that was the only space that George was offered. Kora was a neglected game reserve, which had been underfunded and under-protected, and if it had been worth anything, they wouldn’t have given it to him. But what had happened was by the end, because of George’s work with Christian, the land became upgraded to a national park. So, it’s now called Kora National Park and in George’s biography, Born Again, he says it was all a tribute to a cheeky little lion from London called Christian. So that’s great. You know, I was talking the other night about the Kings Road. I said that you’ve got the history of the Kings Road, and you think of fashion and music and art. But actually, there’s a wildlife element because a former resident of the Kings Road is responsible for a National Park in Africa. It’s a nice little point this, yeah.
Christian The Lion: The Illustrated Legacy by John Rendall and Derek Cattani is published by Bradt Travel Guides, available in paperback for RRP £14.99. Readers of The Luxury Channel are offered a 25% discount. When buying from Bradt Travel Guides, use code: LUXURYCHANNEL25 once you have added the book to your shopping basket.
To purchase official prints of Christian, please visit www.christianthelionprints.com.
For more information and to donate to The George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, please visit www.georgeadamson.org.