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Lion King

The Lion King: London’s Famous Lion Cub

Award-winning photographer and Wandsworth resident Derek Cattani shares never-before-seen photos of London’s most famous lion cub

A lion cub rescued from Harrods, lovingly reared in the gardens of Chelsea, successfully reintroduced to the wilds of Kenya by Born Free legend George Adamson, and a reunion in the wild that has become the stuff of YouTube legend. The tale of Christian the lion has to be seen to be believed. And fortunately photographer and Wandsworth resident, Derek Cattani, was there to photograph the entire adventure.

A new book, Christian the Lion: The Illustrated Legacy, features some of Derek’s never-before-seen photos and tells the remarkable story of London’s unlikeliest pet.

In 1969 two young Australians, John Rendall and Ace Bourke, saw a lion cub in Harrods (in the swinging 60s you could buy an array of exotic animals in its zoo department) and knew they had to save it. The friends bought the cub, named him Christian and took it home to Chelsea with the hope they could find a way to get the lion back to Africa.

born free

A chance meeting with John and Ace at a party on the King’s Road led Derek Cattani, then a fledgeling freelance photographer working on Fleet Street, to begin chronicling the story.

“Christian lived with John and Ace in their flat and spent the daytime at the furniture shop they managed downstairs, called Sophistocat funnily enough. Christian was probably two and a half months old when I met him, he was very gentle and loved to sniff and paw things, much like a puppy does,” Derek recalls.

Christian was a very loving animal and playful. John and Ace exercised him in the local vicarage gardens as it had the only enclosed walls high enough,” he continues.

After a few months, though much adored by Ace and John, the cub was growing fast and the quest was on to return him to the wild.  The friends eventually made contact with Born Free legend, George Adamson, who agreed to attempt to rehabilitate Christian into the wild.

Lion King
John and Christian during their final days together at Kora in 1972. © Tony Fitzjohn

In 1970, John, Ace, Christian and Derek made the journey to Kora in Kenya. “It was emotional – we had brought him up for nine months and loved him but we wanted to see him in the wild,” Derek recalls.

“He was being looked after by the world’s foremost authority on lions. So you couldn’t wish for better really.” Over the ensuing months, Christian was rehabilitated back into the wild and soon had his own pride.

A year later John and Ace returned to Kora. “No one knew what would happen. Christian was now living totally in the wild. George tracked the pride for a few days and then one afternoon Christian came up to the brow of a hill. John and Ace were standing still at the bottom. Everyone was on tenterhooks. They called Christian and the lion started cantering towards them at 20mph,” Derek says.

Lion King

The jaw-dropping footage of Christian leaping into the arms of his old owners remains some of the most incredible wildlife film ever shot and has 150 million hits to date on YouTube.

After his lion adventures, Derek went on to have an esteemed career photographing the Queen,Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher, among many others, and spent the best part of 14 years working for The Sunday Times.

Today, John and Derek continue to support the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, with proceeds of the new book going to the charity. With the lion population having plummeted more than 90 per cent in 50 years, Derek hopes Christian’s legacy will continue to raise awareness of the plight of lions and the threat to all wildlife.