'Elsa's Legacy' tells real tale behind 'Born Free'

Born Free. For anyone born at the tail end of the baby boom those words - and that film score - evoke memories of sitting in front of the black and white TV riveted to the the story of Elsa, the orphan lion cub succssfully raised by George and Joy Adamson and released into the African bush.

The movie, "Born Free," helped shape a new consciousness about growing threats to wild animal population, but also confirmed the astounding bonds that could be made between humans and creatures of the jungle. More broadly, the movie helped the world understand the individuality of wild cats - once considered vermin by Africans and trophies by big game hunters - and their role in the fragile ecosystem.

Now, a PBS documentary, "Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story," which airs tonight at 8 p.m. on  (WHYY/Philadelphia) and other PBS stations, examines the Adamsons often stormy relationship, the harrowing existence of life in the wild - both for man (and woman) and beast - and how Elsa transformed the lives of many involved with telling her story. Among those forever changed were actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, who played Joy and George Adamson in the movie. They would go on to found the Born Free Foundation, a UK-based group that calls attention to the plight of wild animals in Africa. 

Since the era of the movie (released in 1966) experts estimate that even with the global attention to the plight of the lions and the destruction of their habitat, the population of Africa's lions has plummeted 80-90 percent. Still, the documentary establishes the role of the Adamsons in helping us understanding animal behavior and leaves us with the understanding of how the "Elsa experiment" transformed our view of the natural world.

Watch the full episode. See more Nature.