Thirty-three rescued lions that endured “hell on earth” at circuses in Colombia and Peru have been flown to South Africa to start a new life in a sanctuary, in the largest airlift of the big cats in history.
33 lions, 24 from circuses in Peru and nine from Colombia, rescued by US-based group Animal Defenders International (ADI) returned to their homeland after both South American countries banned the use of wild animals in circuses.
The long journey began on Thursday in Colombia where a caravan carrying the first nine lions departed the city of Bucaramanga for a 14-hour drive to Bogota’s international airport. From there, they were loaded onto a cargo plane and flown to Peru’s capital to pick up the remaining 24.
Their flight to Johannesburg departed from Lima’s airport Friday evening. They appeared a little distressed but healthy after their long journey when they landed here yesterday. They will be shifted to 12,355-acre Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Vaalwater.
The ADI, which was behind the biggest of its kind operation, says almost all the lions have had teeth or claws removed at the circuses.
The lions will first be released into bonding camps, the largest enclosures the lions have ever known and where families will be reintroduced to one another and become familiarised with their new home. The second phase of the release is the construction of habitats 2.5 to 5 acres in size and with trees, platforms and watering holes.
Jan Creamer ADI President said: “These lions have endured hell on earth and now they are heading home to paradise. This is the world for which nature intended these animals for. It is the perfect ending to ADI’s operation which has eliminated circus suffering in another country.”
Savannah Heuser, founder of Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, said: “The lions are returning to where they belong. This is their birth right. African sun, African night skies, African bush and sounds, clouds, summer thunderstorms, large enclosures in a natural setting where they can remember who they are.” The Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary is on private land and already houses six other rescued lions and two tigers.