Ilanit Chernick

JOHANNESBURG: After years of abuse and mistreatment, 33 lions rescued from circuses in South America reached their new home, the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Limpopo, yesterday morning.

On Saturday night, the lions roared their way into OR Tambo International Airport as their “Spirit of Freedom Flight” landed after over 15 hours of flying.

American-based charity Animal Defenders International (ADI) has been working together with Emoya to bring the lions to their final home.

ADI president Jan Cremer said the animals, saved from circuses in South America, “have been deprived of everything that makes life worth living for a lion”. Twenty four of the lions were rescued in surprise raids by the organisation on circuses in Peru with the help of authorities.

“They were living in deplorable conditions in cages on the backs of trucks.”

Nine lions were voluntarily surrendered by a circus in Colombia. She said due to their poor physical condition, the lions were not able to hunt and will have to be cared for with food and water for the rest of their lives.

The use of wild animals in circuses has been banned in Peru since 2011 and in Colombia since 2013.

Cremer said that once at Emoya, the lions would first be released into bonding camps – the largest enclosures they 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 5ha in size and with trees, platforms and watering holes.

“Their forever homes will have acres of natural bush (a separate habitat for each family or pair), with watering holes, platforms, trees, vegetation all safely secure behind double electric fencing to prevent access by other animals,” she explained. “There are two large family prides and several pairs, and some who will be introduced to see whether they would form a family.

“Some of our older guys, like Ricardo and Joseph who both have sight problems, will be provided with special needs-type enclosures, with anything that could harm them removed,” Cremer said.

ADI and GreaterGood.com ran an online campaign for several months to raise funds for the aeroplane which flew the lions to South Africa.

But there are still challenges which lie ahead: once at Emoya the organisation still has to fund the care of these lions for life “and we are embarking on the next phase of their spacious enclosures”.

On social media, users watched #33lions updates closely. Many were overjoyed at the news of their arrival in Johannesburg, followed by their homecoming at Emoya.

On Facebook, Lisa Goss welcomed the lion’s home. “May the African skies fill your heart with all that was taken from you and the African soil allow your wondering souls to be at peace.”

Heinz Studer said that “it’s a beautiful day, the lions are home” and he was looking forward “to updates of the release”.

Lauren Burley Copley was brought to tears after seeing videos of the truck carrying the lions. “Wonderful sight! Huge respect for these truck drivers driving through the night with their precious cargo.”