Abused Lions Safe To Roam
It's a safe haven, a place of peace and relaxation. After living a life of abuse and exploitation, the 33 lions rescued from circuses in Colombia and Peru a couple of weeks back are free to bask in the sunlight, camouflage themselves in the trees and enjoy life as they should have years ago.
The Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Limpopo has become a place of refuge for lions across the world, including the 33 rescued by Animal Defenders International (ADI).
Whether rescued from circuses, canned hunting or mistreatment, the lions at Emoya are given the best form of life possible. Co-founded and run by single mom and daughter, Minunette and Savannah Heuser, Emoya has become home to over 40 lions, two tigers, meerkat and some small felines too.
“Most of the lions were treated terribly, many were de-clawed, beaten, starved and kept in tiny cages with no room to roam free or live as they should have at any point in their lives,” said Minunette.
Her daughter, Savannah, also has a special place for the furry ones in her heart.
At age 14, Savannah already knew that she wanted to look after and work with lions.
It was the story of a lioness from Cairo named Masrya who was kept in a tiny cage for over two years, de-clawed and malnourished, that got her thinking about giving abused big cats a chance for a better life.
“Savannah didn’t like school, we’d moved from the farm to Pretoria when she was 6 and she didn’t really like coming back because there was no cellphone reception, but this all changed after hearing Masrya’s story. She wished we had lions on the farm and I wanted to do what I could to encourage her to stay here,” said Minunette.
The Heusers applied for a permit to keep predators including lions, and it took about 18 months for them to acquire the permit.
“In those 18 months we learnt a lot. We wanted to create a sanctuary in the country for all people,” said Minunette.
Emoya was started in 2012 on the Heusers' 5 000-hectare family farm and at just 16, Savannah officially opened the doors to the sanctuary, starting a journey that would see them take in all forms of animals and rehabilitate them.
“It’s been a life-changing journey, it’s Savannah’s biggest dream to have the best and largest lion sanctuary in Africa and I hope to help her along to reach that dream,” Minunette said.
Last year, Masrya, the lioness that inspired it all, joined the Emoya family from the Stichting Leeuw lion sanctuary in Holland where she had been taken after being rescued from Egypt. Her partner Nero came with her.
“The enclosures are built so that you cannot see from one side to the other,” said Minunette. Inside the cage, Masrya concealed herself among the long blades of grass deep into her enclosure.
As we traipsed through the bush to the next enclosure, a lion with a shiny dark brown coat came running up to the fence watching photographer Chris Collingridge carefully.
“Her name is Chanel, she’s the first lion we took in – she loves men and can pick up their hormones immediately,” Minunette said, laughing as Chanel continued to track Chris along the fence wherever he walked.
“She was named and rescued from illegal traders in Cairo in 2013. We don’t take in any lions that have been purchased because that creates a demand for lion trade,” Minunette explained, as she squatted near the fence to say a proper hello to Chanel.
She said this did create a “catch-22 dilemma” because sometimes the only way to rescue damaged lions was to buy them.
“You want to rescue them but you don’t want to encourage the buying and selling of big cats,” she said.
The Star team were introduced to the other three lions in the enclosure who form the rest of the Behati Pride: Raka, Tau and Serabie.
All four, including Chanel, live together in harmony and have bonded well.
The shapes of the new enclosures built have been changed recently. The Star team were given a look from the inside of one of the enclosures in the process of being built for three new lions which arrived at the sanctuary just under two weeks ago.
“They were initially square but we’ve made them circular so that the enclosure seems bigger than it is to the lions because there are no corners. It stops them pacing and gives them the illusion of freedom. The size of the enclosures is between 1 and 3 hectares,” she said.
Minunette also explained that the size of the enclosure gave the lions a chance to stay hidden if they didn't want to be seen.
“Many have had bad experiences with humans in the past and sometimes they don’t want to see or interact with them. Lions are social creatures and with habituated lions, because of the close contact they’ve had with humans, they may attack them if they see them – that’s part of the reason they cannot be released into the wild.
"But many of our lions were de-clawed and abused to the point that they won’t survive in the wild even if we tried (to release them),” she said. Eventually, the team at Emoya hope to release the three new arrivals into a 1 000-hectare section of the farm because these lions are more wild and aggressive than some of the others living at the sanctuary.
As we walked, it was hard not to notice how the sandy terrain, large African indigenous trees, the brush and long grass created the perfect environment for the lions to live out their years in peace.
Emoya’s involvement with the 33 abused lions rescued from circuses in Colombia and Peru was sparked by a call from ADI’s co-founder and vice- president Tim Phillips last year.
“We’d heard about these lion rescues from circuses in Peru and Colombia. It was called Lion Ark, which was facilitated by ADI. Initially I thought it was a movie, not a documentary. ADI knew about us because of the work we’ve been doing, especially after we took in Masrya, her story was well-known. When I spoke with the team we were initially going to take in the 24 from Peru,” she said.
Phillips then phoned her one day while driving and asked how she felt about taking in all 33.
“I had to pull over the car, I was a little taken aback but we discussed it at length and we started working out details. What was amazing about the whole process was that there were no egos involved, all of us just wanted what was best for the lions,” she said.
After the team from ADI came out to see Emoya, the deal was sealed and Emoya was set to take in all 33 abused lions. ADI continues to fund the care of the lions due to financial constraints.
According to Minunette, most healthy lions living in captivity can live to between 20 and 22 years of age.
She explained that it can take at least four to six months for the lions to adjust to their new surroundings.
“It depends on the lion, there’s no set time. It’s a big adjustment from climate to food and the fact that they have the freedom to roam around a large, open space is new to them. Most of these lions lived in small cages and have never seen trees or had the chance to climb them or just relax in the sun. It’s not a job for us, it’s something we are privileged to do each and every day of our lives. Just the fact that the lions are safe makes everything worth it,” Minunette concluded.
As the sun began to set, we bade farewell to these magnificent animals, as their roars echoed through the African bush.