In an extraordinary prison cell interview, his first since he was jailed for Adamson’s killing 22 years ago, Paul Nakware Ekai claimed that the naturalist and author, who awakened millions to the plight of Africa’s big cats, was a ‘very hot-tempered’ boss, and that he killed her after she shot him for complaining about not being paid.
‘When she blew her top she would draw a pistol. Sometimes she shot some of her workers,’ Ekai said yesterday, speaking for the first time about a murder that shocked the world. ‘She would shoot people who annoyed her and then pay for their treatment. After that, she would pay to hush up the matter.’
Ekai, whose case will be reviewed for parole in April, confessed before his trial that he stabbed the conservationist because she had not paid him for 14 days’ work as a labourer at the Shaba game reserve in Kenya, where she was working on a project to return captive leopards to the wild. But in yesterday’s interview – which has already been strongly contradicted by Adamson’s supporters – he claimed he killed Adamson after she shot him in the leg because he disobeyed orders.
He also disputed the autopsy report that the 69-year-old conservationist, who was originally thought to have been mauled by a lion, had died from a stab wound, insisting that he shot her.
‘On the day she died we had a bad quarrel. I had disobeyed her… she had issued firm instructions that we were to fetch firewood and carry it on our shoulders. [But] I used her Toyota Landcruiser.’
Ekai claimed he was shot in the left foot and reacted by rushing to his tent to get a gun. ‘My leg was bleeding badly. I was very angry and shocked that she had shot me… I took my pistol and fired three times at her.
‘I aimed for her chest. I realised that, since I had a gun in my hand, if I hesitated she was going to finish me off. She screamed after the first shot. I think she said something, but I can’t recall.’
At his trial in 1981 Ekai repudiated the confessions he made while in police custody and claimed he had been tortured. But the judge ruled that his original statements were truthful and made voluntarily. The judge, Matthew Muli, also ruled that Ekai – a Turkana tribesman whose age was disputed – was a juvenile when he had killed Adamson in January of 1980. This saved him from being hanged for murder.
Ekai told the newspaper: ‘My case was not an ordinary matter. It was not handled by junior police officers. It was me, an 18-year-old boy, against the whole system. [Former Kenyan] President Moi publicly told the police to arrest the criminal who had killed Joy.’ He repeated claims that he was tortured, saying: ‘They beat me up with whips and clubs to force me to admit I killed her. You see this hand… it was almost crippled. The scars are still there.’
Fellow conservationists last night conceded that Adamson could be ‘highly strung’, but they doubted Ekai’s claims that she shot at her employees. He claimed in the interview with the East African Standard that he knew of one man who was shot in the left shoulder and another who was wounded in the buttocks. He alleged Adamson paid them to keep the shootings hushed up.
Peres Olindo, a former director of Kenya’s national parks, said: ‘Joy was a very strong, opinionated person. She did not change her opinion very easily. But I can’t believe she shot people and paid them off, and got away with it. Why did he [Ekai] not report that this was the case? After somebody has been convicted for murder, they would talk, but he did not.’
Cynthia Moss, who runs an elephant research project at Amboseli national park, was also sceptical: ‘I heard that she used to yell at her staff a lot, but I don’t believe she shot people. I think she probably fired them frequently – rather than fired at them. She was highly strung and passionate about what she did. I think she felt that whatever she did was right. She was an amazing woman.’
Ekai’s account of running to his tent for a gun in a moment of fury also conflicts with the accepted account that Adamson was killed while taking an evening stroll several hundred yards from the camp, suggesting that she was ambushed.
Born in Austria, Adamson came to Kenya, then a British colony, at 27. She married her third husband, game warden George Adamson, in 1944.
She acquired the lion cub Elsa after her husband killed a lioness, Elsa’s mother, in self-defence. The couple reared the three-day-old cub and trained her to hunt until she was ready to be released into the wild two years later.
Her book Born Free, which spawned two sequels, a film and a song, captivated millions with its description of an extraordinary relationship between a human and a wild animal.
Adamson said of her work with big cats: ‘I not only want to breed animals under natural conditions so that they will survive after they have become endangered by man’s influence… I also want to learn from them where man can play a more constructive part in the balance of nature – and thus survive himself.’
Adamson’s husband was shot by poachers in 1989, and she had no children.
In the newspaper interview, Ekai said that he was now ‘rehabilitated’. He said that he sang in the choir at King’ong’o prison in Kenya and had become a Catholic. ‘I have sought God’s forgiveness. I pray every day. It is not easy, as Joy Adamson will haunt me until the day I die.’