By Maryanne Vollers
September 11, 1989 12:00 PM

Something was wrong at Kora.

Every evening at 7:30, members of the Laikipia shortwave security network were expected to check in. The network, a holdover from the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, when Kenya was still a British colony, is a modern version of tribal drums, a lifeline for farmers, ranchers and researchers living in remote corners of the East African country. For many, it is the only link to the outside world, and they use it to pass on messages and greetings and, occasionally, cries for help. George Adamson, chief of a primitive wildlife camp in the Kora National Reserve, was a long-standing link in the network. But on Sunday night, Aug. 20, nobody could reach him.

Jane McKeand, who runs camel safaris in the northern wilderness, kept trying. “Delta Four-One, do you read?” Over and over, she repeated Kora’s call sign into the microphone. “George, are you there?”

Then a stranger’s voice broke in. “This is an emergency!” he shouted. “I have some terrible news.” Over crackling static, the warden of Kora recounted the details. There had been a shooting; George Adamson and two members of his staff were dead.

Adamson’s friends and admirers in Kenya and, later, around the world listened to the news with disbelief, then anger, and then a terrible sense of loss. To those whose lives he had touched through the books he wrote with his wife, Joy, and through the films made about him, the world suddenly seemed a smaller, harsher, uglier place.

Adamson, who was 83 when he was killed, was made famous by Born Free, the best-selling 1960 book, later a movie, that told of the unique friendship he and Joy forged with a lioness they named Elsa. Since then, the old man who looked like a prophet and lived in the bush had become a symbol of the struggle to save Africa’s wildlife. At a time when the continent’s animals are being massacred by poachers and pushed out of their habitat by human encroachment Adamson gave a passionate voice to the conservationist cause. In the end, he gave his life. A romantic vision of Africa may have died with him.

That Sunday, Adamson had risen at dawn from the camp bed on which he habitually slept under the stars. His compound, called Kampi ya Simba, or Camp of the Lions, is little more than a cluster of primitive thatched huts deep in the rugged thorn country of eastern Kenya. For 19 years, Adamson had lived in this self-imposed isolation, in a place where the people lived inside an enclosure and the lions wandered free. Fully awake now, he checked on the three orphan cubs he had taken in from an up-country ranch last year. As he had for decades, Adamson was trying to give something back to nature, teaching the motherless cubs to live in the wild.

After drinking his morning tea at a rough wood table in the dining hut, he scattered millet for the raucous flock of guinea fowl that lived near the camp. Fan-tailed ravens, hornbills and other birds mobbed him, roosting on his shoulders and tugging at his long white hair.

As his friends recalled later, Adamson had been in fine form in his final months. Although he suffered from asthma and slept with a tank of oxygen nearby, the old man remained hardy. Maybe it was the lions. Nothing made him happier than the big cats, and a pride of 15 had appeared just the night before. Adamson spent the morning in his hut typing a letter while Hamisi, his poker-faced cook, prepared lunch for three German tourists who were expected later.

Just after noon a small plane buzzed low over the camp, signaling that it was about to land at the nearby airstrip. Inge Ledertheil, a 42-year-old German clerk who was visiting Adamson, volunteered to pick up the guests. Adamson dispatched Bitacha Dirkicha, one of his nine African employees, to go with her.

A few minutes later, the crackle of automatic-rifle fire rang from the direction of the airstrip. Adamson grabbed his .38 Colt revolver and leapt into a Land Rover. Four workers scrambled aboard; one of them, Mohamed Maro, grabbed a vintage .303 Enfield rifle.

A half mile from the airstrip, Ledertheil had run into an ambush. Three men with assault rifles opened fire on her Land Rover, shooting out the front tires. “Money, money!” the bandits shouted. They threw Bitacha against the car and and broke his legs with a crowbar. “When we finish with the woman, we’re going to kill you,” one of them said. The attackers were Shifta, bandits and poachers who in recent years have ravaged Kenya’s elephant and rhino populations. The Shifta are also prime suspects in the recent killings of five European and American vacationers in Kenya, including Marie Ferraro, 49, of Bethany, Conn., who was murdered in July near Tsavo National Park.

The three men turned on Ledertheil and knocked her to the ground. Within minutes, Adamson and his men rounded a bend in the road. Mohamed and Hassan, another worker, bailed out of the car. Adamson stamped on the accelerator and drove straight for the bandits, who leapt aside and opened fire. Adamson was hit in the thigh as he passed, and a bullet smashed into his back as the Land Rover veered into a bush. He died instantly; two of his men were also killed. The Shifta took Adamson’s watch and gun and fled into the bush.

Meanwhile, when no one appeared to pick up the visitors, the pilot went aloft to investigate. He saw that something was amiss on the ground, returned for his passengers and raced to nearby Meru National Park for help.

Bitacha and the German woman hid in the dense bush for the rest of the afternoon. Just before dark the warden of Kora arrived with rangers. Ledertheil, who later told her story to a British tabloid, has no doubt Adamson sacrificed his life to save her. “Without him, I would be dead,” she said. After news of Adamson’s death reached Nairobi, 700 policemen and security troops supported by helicopter gunships swarmed across Kora searching for the killers. By Wednesday, three suspects were under arrest.

Never have Africa’s best-known conservationists seemed to live so perilously close to extinction. In 1980 Adamson’s wife, Joy, was shot to death by a disgruntled Kenyan laborer at her leopard camp in central Kenya. Three years ago American primatologist Dian Fossey, who lived among the gorillas she studied in the mountains of Rwanda, was murdered by a machete-wielding assailant, probably a poacher. In his 1986 autobiography, My Pride and Joy, Adamson spoke of the lethal forces at work in the bush. “Destroying the wilderness, and robbing its prospects of peace and of game,” he wrote, “man leaves only the promise of danger.”

Adamson knew the risks he was taking by running his lion camp on the edge of the lawless frontier. “In a funny way,” he once wrote, “the danger is a part of the attraction.” If he was afraid of anything, his friends say, it was of growing too old or too sick to live the life he had chosen.

Born in India, the son of an English mother and an Irish father who helped train an army for the Rajah of Dholpur, George Adamson was one of the last of a fabled generation of British expatriates. After public school in England, George and his younger brother, Terence, joined their parents in Kenya, where they had set up as coffee growers. But the routine of plantation life bored George, who tried a succession of failed schemes, including gold prospecting and goat trading. Finally, in 1938, he found work that suited him when he joined Kenya’s game department as a warden. Four years later, Adamson fell in love with an Austrian émigré artist named Joy Bally, whom he married as soon as she could divorce her wealthy botanist husband.

In 1956 Adamson got the assignment that would transform his life. A man-eating lion was terrorizing villages, and Adamson was sent to track it down. In the deep bush, he and his party startled a lioness and her newborn cubs. The mother charged; Adamson had no choice but to shoot. He packed up the babies and hauled them home to Joy. Two cubs went to a Dutch zoo, but the couple kept the smallest, whom they named Elsa. When she was grown, instead of putting Elsa in a zoo, Joy and George decided to try something that had never been done: By patiently walking her through the bush, they encouraged her instinct to hunt, training her to live in the wild again.

Their book about the experiment, Born Free, was an instant best-seller, and the 1964 movie, starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, made the Adam-sons celebrities. Joy reveled in the limelight, but George couldn’t have been less interested. After serving as an animal trainer on the Born Free set in Kenya, he took charge of three of the film’s lions and, with Joy, headed for Meru. There they continued training lions for life in the wild. But five years later Adamson was expelled from the reserve after Boy, his favorite lion, mauled the son of a warden.

The only place the government would let Adamson set up his wildlife rehabilitation program was in a no-man’s-land called Kora. Joy, however, hated the isolation and blast-furnace heat and refused to move. So in 1970 the couple separated, although they continued to spend Christmas together. The marriage had been rocky for years. George was quiet and unassuming; Joy was a noisy and demanding woman with a ferocious temper. Even worse, in George’s eyes, she nagged him constantly to give up his pipe and his evening Scotch. George loved Joy to the end of her life, but ultimately he couldn’t bear living with her. “There are two things in life I cannot do without,” he once said. “They are whisky and Worcestershire sauce. Joy is neither.”

Joy never shared Born Free royalties with her husband, even though, George’s friends now insist, the book was largely written from his diaries. But Adamson never complained and spoke fondly of his wife, even when he and his unpaid assistant, Tony Fitzjohn, were so broke at Kora that they subsisted on camel meat and tinned army rations.

In 1980, the year of Joy’s murder, another disaster struck: A lion mauled Terence Adamson, prompting the Kenyan government to shut down Adamson’s work of reintroducing tame or orphaned cats to the wilderness. The program had always been controversial. Even some conservationists maintained that Adam-son’s project was unimportant, dismissing him as a sentimental eccentric. Adamson had never claimed to be a scientist and had no interest in trying to reduce his lions to behavioral charts and graphs. “He reckoned someone else could do that,” says Fitzjohn. “The greatest thing about George was the magic of his relationship with the lions. It was sort of spiritual.”

As the years passed at Kora, the temporal world closed in. The Kenyans let Adamson and Fitzjohn start a leopard-training program in 1981, but soon the two men could do little but watch as poachers slaughtered the region’s wildlife. The elephants were nearly all gone, Fitzjohn’s favorite leopard was poisoned, and most of the lions were killed or driven away.

Much the same scenario was being played out in the rest of Africa. Twenty years ago, there were 65,000 black rhino in Africa; today, fewer than 3,500 survive in the wild. Now poachers have turned their full attention to the elephant. Armed with automatic weapons, they often gun down whole herds, even babies with tusks barely two inches long. The economics of the situation are not complicated: One set of tusks will fetch a poacher $150, three times the typical monthly income in Kenya. Last year approximately 1,600 elephants were killed every week in Africa; only an estimated 625,000 remain.

In the days after Adamson’s death, all Kenya seemed focused on the murder. National wildlife director Richard Leakey, the eminent anthropologist, renewed a vow to make Kora a full-fledged, protected national park, and President Daniel arap Moi warned that anyone caught “loitering” in the parks would be shot on sight. Troops in camouflage fatigues drank tea in the Kora dining hut, while Adamson’s tame squirrels searched for peanuts. The flocks of guinea fowl and hornbills scattered in alarm as helicopters kicked up clouds of dust. Adamson’s remaining staff fed the three lion cubs; exactly when and where they will be released remains undecided. Adamson never had children, but he did leave an heir to his legacy. With Adamson’s support, Fitzjohn, 45, has begun a new wildlife rehabilitation project in Tanzania. Adamson’s funeral was scheduled for last weekend; he was to be buried at Kora near the grave of his brother, Terence, and the grave of his lion, Boy.

Three years before his death, Adamson wrote, “Who will look after the animals in the reserve, for they cannot look after themselves? Who will raise their voices, when mine is carried on the wind, to plead Kora’s case?” For those who knew him, or who cared about his work, it is good to know that George Adamson will remain at Kora, watching over the wind-worn hills and the ocean of thorn trees and the animals, and waiting for an answer.

—with Aidan Hartley in Nairobi, Harry Minetree in New York and bureau reports