A visit to Harrods one fateful day in 1969 had been prompted by simple curiosity. As two young Australians newly arrived in England, Ace [Bourke] and I overheard an amazing story about two lion cubs that had just joined the zoo at Harrods department store. (These were the days before the Endangered Species Act of 1976, when it was perfectly legal for exotic creatures to be sold to the public). When we saw Christian the cub for sale that day, we were smitten. For 250 guineas (£3,000 in today’s money) Christian was ours. And so began a wonderful, rollercoaster life with him.
For a year, Christian lived happily with Ace and I at a furniture shop called Sophistocat on London’s King’s Road. Given the run of the lower floor of the shop, Christian fitted in like any pet cat would with his own litter tray, his favourite toys and a pampered diet. As well as being very affectionate, Christian was such an intelligent animal with a great sense of humour, always interested in everything around him.
Fleet Street photographer Derek Cattani became a regular visitor photographing Christian’s Chelsea life including the gorgeous photos shown in the book. As word spread that there was a lion living in the shop, other well-known visitors from the world of showbusiness began turning up to see him. These included the actors Corin Redgrave, Diana Rigg and Mia Farrow.
Not surprisingly, Christian grew rapidly. We had to come to terms with the fact that, heartbreakingly, he would soon be too big and needed a new home. So, in 1970 we made the trip to Kenya in Africa, where Christian was to be released back into the wild with the help of George Adamson, the conservationist and author whose book inspired the Born Free film.
It was a wonderful opportunity, but it was a challenge for us, too. Could our beloved Christian, a fifth-generation captivity-bred lion, adapt to life in the wild? And if he did, would he survive?
George Adamson was in Nairobi to meet us. This was the man who had rehabilitated the famous Elsa the lioness, and in whose hands Christian’s destiny now lay. Derek Cattani joined us to document the first stage of Christian’s rehabilitation. Together we set off for the Kora reserve 250 miles to the north – Christian’s new home.
Here Christian was introduced to other lions, including a huge full-sized beast called Boy, who quickly made it clear to the Christian that he was the boss. Luckily, even though he was a domesticated lion, Christian’s wild instincts kicked in and he simply rolled on his belly whenever Boy came near which was the right etiquette to do before an older lion.
After a few days together in Africa, we said a sad goodbye to the lion cub that had become our best friend. But we had all learnt in that time what we most needed to know: that deep down, our young lion was wild at heart. Everything was going to be all right. We had made the right decision.
In the summer of 1971, a year after Christian had become a wild animal, Ace and I returned to Kora in an attempt to find him and see how he was adapting. He had taken to life in the wild magnificently and was now the head of a small pride of lions. George identified a spot for a reunion. As Christian crested the brow of the hill he stopped and stared at us. Then, he started to walk slowly down the hill towards us. We called him and the moment he heard our voices Christian began to run down the hillside, grunting with excitement. A 300-pound lion was now bounding towards us at about 20 miles an hour.
The film clip of our emotional reunion has now been viewed by over 100 million people on YouTube. When Ace and I took Christian to Kenya in 1970, there were an estimated 400,000 lions in Africa. Today there are fewer than 20,000.
As the threat to Africa’s lions increases, we have so much to be grateful to Christian for. His presence continues to be felt. The video continues to be viewed, he continues to garner ever more fans and I can only hope and pray that it will continue to help raise interest and awareness among a new generation of viewers, and the fight to save Christian’s descendants will gain momentum.
There could be no better legacy from a remarkable animal who continues to hold a unique place in our hearts.
Christian the Lion: The Illustrated Legacy by John Rendall and Derek Cattani is out now (Bradt, £14.99)