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33 rescued lions arrive in South Africa in airlift

Published:Sunday | May 1, 2016 | 12:00 AM
A former circus lion peers from inside a cage on their arrival at OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, yesterday.


The roars of lions filled the cargo section of Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport yesterday evening as 33 lions rescued from South American circuses landed in South Africa where they will be released into a bush sanctuary for big cats.

It was the largest airlift of lions in history, said Jan Creamer, president of Animal Defenders International, which carried out the operation.

"These lions have suffered tremendously," Creamer said as the lions in crates were loaded on to trucks.

"They lived in small cages on the backs of trucks for their entire lives. Some of them had their teeth bashed in with steel pipes in circuses in Colombia and Peru. Some of them had their claws removed ... . It is a wonderful feeling to bring them back to their home."

Nine of the lions were surrendered by a circus in Colombia. The remaining 24 were rescued in raids on circuses in Peru by the animal defence group and officials enforcing a crackdown on wildlife trafficking.

The lions will be placed in quarantine in enclosures at the 5,000-hectare Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Vaalwater in northern South Africa, started three years ago by a single mother and her teenage daughter.

The 33 lions will be monitored by a vet for their first weeks in Africa. They will then be introduced to each other in a one-hectare bonding enclosure. Many of the lions were never allowed to have direct physical contact with other lions and have never been together without a fence or a cage separating them.

Due to their poor physical state, the lions will never be able to hunt again and will have to be cared for with food and water for the rest of their lives. Emoya will feed the cats with game meat which it buys in bulk.

The enclosures will be fitted with drinking pools, platforms and toys to ensure the lions don't become bored and will be steadily expanded as they become familiar with their new life, Heuser said.