Friend of Christian the lion's owner praises wildlife work after death

‘He fought tirelessly to protect wildlife’: Friend who appeared in famous video of late Chelsea socialite being reunited with the lion he set free in Kenya after buying it in Harrods pays tribute to conservationist

  • Chelsea-based socialite John Rendall and his friend Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke bought a lion cub from Harrods
  • Christian was a regular sight in London as he was taken for walks along King’s Road by the conservationist 
  • Lion was later returned to the wild in Kenya after outgrowing Mr Rendall’s furniture store, Sophistocat
  • But lion recognised his old master and bounded up to him for hug when he visited in extraordinary video 

The long-time friend of socialite John Rendall who bought a lion with him from Harrods in the 1960s and took it for walks around London has paid tribute to his ‘tireless’ fight for wildlife protection following his death aged 76.

Mr Rendall became well known after he and his fellow Australian friend Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke purchased the cub from the pet department of the exclusive Knightsbridge store, which traded in exotic animals at the time.

Christian was a regular sight in Chelsea as he was taken for walks along King’s Road by the conservationist – with Mr Rendall and Mr Bourke both also seen driving the big cat around in their Mercedes cabriolet.

Christian, bought for 250 guineas in 1969, was fed steak and taken to restaurants and glamorous parties – but taken to the wild in Kenya in 1970 after outgrowing Mr Rendall’s flat above his furniture store, Sophistocat.

Mr Rendall became a dedicated conservationist thereafter and an extraordinary video of the lion recognising his old master and bounding up to him for a hug in 1971 has attracted more than 100million views on YouTube.

But Mr Rendall, who had a decade-long marriage with TV personality Liz Brewer, was found dead at his desk on Sunday by his distraught son Maximillian, a magician who is his child from his second marriage, to Melanie.

And Mr Bourke, who is now an art curator who lives in Sydney with his two cats, told MailOnline today: ‘Since our time with Christian the lion, John has fought tirelessly all these years for the protection and preservation of wildlife, and lions in particular. 

‘He would want us all to continue the ever more urgent work on behalf of animals. My heartfelt sympathies for his family and many friends.’

Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke (left) and John Rendall (right) with Christian the lion who they brought up in Chelsea in the 1960s

Christian was a regular sight in Chelsea with Mr Bourke (left) and Mr Rendall (right) seen driving him around in their Mercedes

Mr Rendall (left) and Mr Bourke (right) with Christian the lion at Mr Rendall’s furniture store, Sophistocat, in London

Christian the lion recognised his old master in Kenya and bounded up to him for a hug when they were reunited in 1971

John Rendall with his second wife Melanie Rendall at a party in London in April 2017. Mr Rendall died aged 76 on Sunday

Ms Brewer, the Ladette To Lady etiquette adviser, told the Daily Mail: ‘The reason I married John (and I was on my sixth fiance) was because of the wonderful relationship he had with animals and people.’

‘I just knew he would be a fabulous father. My daughter Tallulah has a great deal of John in her.’

How the Harrods pet shop sold alligators, lions and a baby elephant to Reagan 

The Harrods Pet Kingdom was once the place to buy panthers, tigers and camels and even caught the fancy of Ronald Reagan, who rang up for a baby elephant.

The London department store’s pet section opened in 1917, and rivalled London zoo with a vast array of animals which it sold for more than 50 years until most were outlawed by the 1976 Endangered Species Act.

The playwright Noël Coward was one of its more famous customers, having an alligator bought for him for Christmas in 1951 by the Canadian actress Beatrice Lillie.

And in 1969, John Rendall and Anthony Bourke bought Christian the lion for 250 guineas, who outgrew their flat in Chelsea and had to be released into the wild in Kenya.

But the most famous purchase came in 1967 when future US president Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, rang up to buy a baby elephant called Gertie.

Legend has it the shop worker on the other end of the phone said: ‘Would that be African or Indian, sir?’

Less than a decade later, the Endangered Species Act put a halt to most of the department’s more exotic sales.

But it maintained a good trade in hamsters, rabbits, cats and pedigree dogs until recently when it was closed in 2014 and replaced with a womenswear section.

The world-famous store was once owned by billionaire Mohammed Al Fayed, but was bought out by the Qatari royal family’s fund Qatar Holding in 2010 – becoming only the fifth owner since it was founded.

Mr Rendall had two sons with Melanie, and Ms Brewer said: ‘It is very said that his sons from his second marriage and Tallulah have lost their father so young.’

She added: ‘We had such a beautiful relationship with him. Christian changed the path of our lives.’

And Tallulah told The Times yesterday: ‘My father brought joy to whoever he met … he was loved and he loved with all his heart.’ 

Writing in the Daily Mail in 2013, Mr Rendall revealed he had been working in London in the 1960s when he and Mr Bourke learned that that Harrods was selling exotic animals.

He said the store had previously supplied a baby Indian elephant called Gertie to the son of the exiled King of Albania – who in turn gave it to future US president Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California.

Mr Rendall said he and Mr Bourke visited the store and were ‘astonished to discover there were two lion cubs for sale – and we found the male utterly irresistible’.

Mr Rendall added: ‘We had the crazy idea that if we bought him, we could offer him something better than his life at a department store, even if it were only for a few months.’

They took him back to their flat on King’s Road above the furniture store Sophistocat and he lived with them there for a year, ‘growing rapidly and costing us a fortune in food’.

He was often seen at a nearby Moravian Church, after the friends obtained permission from the vicar for Christian to take his exercise walks and play football in the grounds – and he was even once taken along to the seaside. 

Christian ate four meals – two liquid, two solid-  plus supplements every day, which cost about £30 a week at the time.

Visitors to Sophistocat included actors George Lazenby, Diana Rigg and Mia Farrow, but Mr Rendall said it was- Bill Travers and his wife Virginia McKenna who decided Christian’s fate.

They were the stars of Born Free, the story of famous wildlife conservationists Joy and George Adamson – and told them that rather than send Christian to Longleat Wildlife Park in Wiltshire as they had planned, the friends should send him to Africa, where Mr Adamson would try to release him into the wild.

However, they were extremely concerned about this given that Christian was a fifth generation zoo-­bred lion, and sending such a creature into the wild had never been done before. 

Anthony Bourke (left) and John Rendall (right, in 2009) promoted conservation and told their story in the years that followed

Christian the lion gets a blow dry after being bought from the exotic pets department at Harrods in London

Christian tackles John during a game of football at Moravian Close in Chelsea – a picture that won a World Press Award in 1970

Christian was fed steak and taken to restaurants and glamorous parties and was a regular sight on the streets of Chelsea

Christian was often taken for walks along King’s Road – and is pictured here with Mr Rendall (left) and Mr Bourke (right)

Mr Rendall had a decade-long marriage with TV personality Liz Brewer. They are pictured together in January 1987

But in 1970, they flew with Christian to Kenya and travelled to the Kora Reserve which Mr Adamson had rented for £750 a year – an area that is now a national park.

John Rendall at the Henley Literary Festival in 2012

Mr Rendall wrote: ‘To release Christian into the wild was a huge step, but against all expectations it was a success. From the beginning, George became infatuated with him because he was such an entrancing animal. 

‘It was almost as if he didn’t have a vicious bone in his body. To help Christian’s rehabilitation, George created a pride around him, headed by Boy, one of the lions who had been used in Born Free.’

One year after taking Christian out to Kenya, Mr Rendall and Mr Bourke flew back to the country in the hope of meeting Christian again.

They went there with wildlife cameraman Simon Trevor joining them to film the reunion, and the resulting documentary covering the costs of their travel.

The video was then rediscovered in 2008 by a young American girl who saw it on an obscure Japanese blog.

She posted it on YouTube where a young English actor, Marc Bolton, saw it and added subtitles and Whitney Houston’s song I Will Always Love You.

Speaking about the video, Mr Rendall said: ‘Adults seem to find it very difficult to watch without crying. It summons up all the pain of separation and loss, and the joy of being reunited. 

John Rendall is pictured back in Kenya in later life, which is where Christian the lion was released into the wild

Christian the Lion in the bathroom of the flat where he lived with the two friends on King’s Road in Chelsea, London

Christian the lion rummaging through the drawers at the flat in Chelsea where Mr Rendall and Mr Bourke lived together

John Rendall with Christian the lion who he kept in his Chelsea flat as a pet on King’s Road, pictured together in 1969

Mr Rendall had been married to TV personality Liz Brewer, the Ladette To Lady etiquette adviser. She is pictured in 2019

Harrods department store is pictured on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge in 1966, three years before Christian was bought

‘It’s interesting that children don’t cry at the clip because, hopefully, they’ve never had to experience separation like that. When they see the film, they just say: ‘Oh, fantastic!’

John Rendall’s daughter Tallulah Rendall, pictured in 2008

‘When I go to schools to talk about conservation and show the clip, the children are cheering and saying: ‘Oh, isn’t he great, isn’t he fabulous?’ Then I look up and see that the headteacher is in tears.’

He continued: ‘One of the extraordinary things about the reunion is that Christian introduces us to his two lionesses. They were never tame and George was amazed that they also accepted us.’

Christian disappeared into the wild late in 1973 when he was three-and-­a-half years old, with neither Mr Adamson nor his assistant Tony Fitzjohn even seeing him again, although they said they occasionally heard his roar.

They believe he headed for the adjoining Meru National Park, where it would have been easier for him to establish his own pride.

Mr Adamson and Mr Fitzjohn rehabilitated 23 more lions over the next 18 years, but Mr Adamson was tragically murdered by Somali bandits in 1989.

Mr Rendall spent the rest of his life regularly visited Africa as part of his conservation work, and said: ‘The journey that Christian took me on when he brought me to Africa has been an extraordinary one. It came as the most wonderful surprise, and it’s something I never get sick of. I never tire of showing people Africa.’ 

What happened to the lion from Harrods? Christian the big cat was bought from department store in 1969 then set free in Kenya in 1973… but Chelsea socialite owner died hoping his descendants still live on today 

The fate of Christian the lion who was brought up in a Chelsea flat in the 1960s before being let into the wild in Kenya is still unknown to this day, after he disappeared never to be seen again aged three-and-a-half years old.

The astonishing story of Christian has been back in the news today following the death aged 76 of socialite John Rendall , who famously bought him as a cub from Harrods in 1969 and took him on walks around London .

Mr Rendall, whose final meeting with Christian was in Kenya when he visited in 1972, hoped that his former pet lived a long and healthy life and had cubs of his own, but never found out what happened to the ‘London lion’.

Christian was last seen in 1973 crossing the Tana River going north in the direction of Meru National Park, and Mr Rendall previously said he hoped the lion lived another ten years and that his descendants still live in Kenya today.

Mr Rendall had also dismissed suggestions that poachers may have killed Christian, saying it was unlikely that this would have stayed a secret because the lion was probably the biggest in Kenya, weighing in at 500lbs (227kg).

Because lions only live between 15 to 20 years depending on their environment, Christian is almost certainly now dead – but he left an extraordinary legacy that Mr Rendall had been talking about ever since buying him. 

Mr Rendall became a dedicated conservationist and an amazing video of the lion recognising his old master at the Kora Reserve and bounding up to him for a hug in 1971 has attracted 100million views on YouTube.

He also returned one year later again with Mr Bourke and, despite Christian having not been seen for three months at the time, the lion rushed into their camp to greet them again and they were able to spend nine days with him.

Christian then left the two friends one morning to rejoin the other lions and they never saw him again – which they viewed as a success, because he was no longer dependent on humans and had become a real African lion.

However he was known to be getting into fights with other resident lions at the Kora Reserve and began to stay away from the area for long periods before being last seen in 1973 heading towards Meru National Park.

Mr Rendall and Mr Bourke hoped Christian had managed to find his own pride and lived a full life having grown into a full-sized lion and adapted to Africa despite his late introduction to the wild.

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