Born Free brings pride of LIFE-SIZE lions to Newcastle

Published Apr 2022

Author: Micky Welch

Today, 4th April 2022: International wildlife charity Born Free is bringing a dramatic and powerful exhibition to Newcastle to raise awareness about the catastrophic plight facing the world’s wild lion population, and fight for the long-term survival of these majestic beasts. The spectacular exhibit, entitled ‘Born Free Forever’, has been brought to Newcastle in partnership with Urban Green Newcastle, and will be opened in Exhibition Park by Virginia McKenna OBE, the star of the classic film Born Free, and her son and co-founder of the charity, conservationist, Will Travers OBE.

The free exhibition, the largest of its kind in the UK, will remain in-situ until 30th June 2022. It features 25 life-size bronze sculptures of lions, each with its own story, highlighting the grave threats facing these big cats both in captivity and in the wild. Such is the threat to wild lions, with numbers drastically declining from an estimated 200,000 a century ago to just 20,000 today, they could become extinct across much of their wild range within 30 years.

Author: Micky Welch

Animal campaigner Virginia and Born Free’s Executive President Will, will be joined by 10-year-old Tyne & Wear youngster Thea Caine, a Born Free Junior Ambassador, and fifty of her classmates from Burnopfield Primary School near Newcastle, who will be taking part in a lion-based art workshop led by Northeast based wildlife artist Jane Lee McCracken.

The unveiling of these extraordinary sculptures, created by internationally recognised Australian artists, Gillie and Marc, in the North East is particularly poignant for Virginia and Will. Born Free Forever is part of a year of action for lions in memory of Virginia’s late husband Bill Travers MBE, who would have turned 100 this year, but for his sudden and tragic death in 1994. Trailblazing wildlife campaigner Bill was born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, following his successful film career, co-founded the charity in 1984. Born Free has named 2022 ‘Year of the Lion’ in honour of Bill, its fearless founder.

A Forever Lions Fund, set up in his memory, will use money raised from the exhibition and other donations to help protect wild lions, resolve human-predator conflict, care for rescued lions, and stop the slaughter of lions for trophy and canned lion hunting.

Bill and Virginia are fondly remembered around the world for their portrayal of George and Joy Adamson in the much-loved 1966 film Born Free, which tells the true story of the efforts to rehabilitate an orphaned lioness called Elsa and return her to the wild. Born Free Forever’s incredible centrepiece features a representation of Elsa standing on top of a 4x4 – she is the charity’s original inspiration and a symbol of hope for the survival of the species.

Like Elsa, all the sculptures, link to Born Free’s history and its ground-breaking rescue and care, policy and conservation work. Each tells a tale of the stark reality and brutal challenges facing lions today. From Christian, the cub purchased from Harrods Department Store and successfully returned to the wild, to Makena, the Kenyan lioness living in the Born Free-supported Meru National Park, to Cora, saved from appalling conditions in a Spanish zoo. Other members of the pride include King, rescued by Born Free from the exotic pet trade, and Louga, one of Born Free’s ‘Lions of Lockdown’, rescued from the circus and given a forever home at Shamwari Private Reserve, South Africa, earlier this year. They are joined by Cecil, the lion barbarically killed by an American trophy hunter in Zimbabwe in 2015.

Each of these incredible statues is available to purchase with all the funds supporting Born Free’s vital conservation work:

There has never been a more crucial time to save lions following a terrifying decline of 90% in just 55 years. Born Free Forever not only allows visitors in the Northeast to learn about these incredible creatures but offers them the chance to join the Born Free pride of people vowing to protect them for generations to come.

Virginia McKenna, Born Free Co-Founder & Trustee, said “I am deeply moved to be bringing our beautiful lion exhibition Born Free Forever to the Northeast, the region where my beloved husband Bill was born and raised. He always remembered his roots, his loyalty and affection for the community never dimmed, and I know the people here will share his desire to save the majestic lion. I am proud that Born Free continues his legacy, each day, fighting for the freedom of every individual animal. And without doubt, I know he would be deeply proud of how the charity has developed, and grateful for the way it has evolved under the tireless leadership of Will and the determined efforts, over nearly four decades, of the Born Free team. I add my voice to his.”

Will Travers OBE, Executive President and Co-Founder of Born Free, stated “Lions face many challenges, both in the wild and in captivity. We simply cannot ignore the calamitous decline in numbers for a moment longer. This life-size, outdoor, bronze sculpture exhibition, featuring iconic lions, including the world-famous Elsa on top of a 4x4, tells the true stories behind the issues they face. I encourage everyone to visit us in Newcastle, a city with deep family connections, not only to marvel at the exhibition and learn more about the plight of these emblematic and majestic creatures, but to help us fundraise and campaign so that there is a forever for lions.”

Thea Caine, Born Free Junior Ambassador, “I'm incredibly excited and proud that the Born Free exhibition is now in my home town of Newcastle! It means so much to me that the people of the Northeast can enjoy the lion sculptures and find out more about the importance of saving lions. With less than 20,000 lions left in the wild we must act now and support Born Free to help lions before they're gone forever.”

Gillie and Marc, who created the sculptures, concluded “The bronze cubs symbolise the future generations of lions that can be created with hard work, dedication and a lot of love. The lion is a big part of our national identity and personifies the qualities of what it is to be British; strength, courage and pride. If wild lions were to become extinct, we would lose part of ourselves.”