From the front line to freedom

Three-year-old Tsar, the brother of Jamil, leaves his travel crate to take his first steps into the natural bush of their enclosure at Born Free’s Big Cat Santuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, in the Eastern Cape. | LYNDON BRANDT

Three-year-old Tsar, the brother of Jamil, leaves his travel crate to take his first steps into the natural bush of their enclosure at Born Free’s Big Cat Santuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, in the Eastern Cape. | LYNDON BRANDT

Published Mar 16, 2024


Durban — Brothers born into captivity, mistreated, malnourished, and rescued at the outbreak of war, the Born Free “Ukraine Lions” have found safety and sanctuary in their South African “forever home”.

Their misery ended after a monumental rescue mission and an incredible 13000km journey involving several passionate people and organisations around the world.

The huge global multi-agency rescue and re-homing mission marked Born Free Foundation’s 40th year of action for wild animals by re-homing its 58th and 59th lions, 3-year-olds Tsar and Jamil.

Lion brothers Jamil and Tsar being cared for as cubs at a Kyiv rescue centre, in Ukraine, after they were removed from a zoo where they had been born. When war broke out they began a 13 000km journey by way of Poland, Belgium and Luxembourg to reach their new home in South Africa. | UANIMALS

“It was with a sense of joy that I learnt of the safe arrival of these beautiful lion brothers at wonderful Shamwari,” said co-founder Dame Virginia McKenna.

“After enduring such misery and hardship in their early years, they can now live the rest of their lives as free as possible, just as nature intended. Grass beneath their feet, sun on their backs, and the shade of trees where they can rest whenever they wish. No longer exploited, but respected and cherished.”

“The story of these lions is the story of Born Free, one of perseverance, hope and change – a story where every individual animal matters,” she said.

Jamil’s crate on the tarmac in Johannesburg, before the last leg of the journey to freedom in Shamwari. | LOUIS VAN ZYL

On Tuesday, the brothers started their new lives on African soil; released to experience, for the first time, the sights, sounds and smells of South Africa at Born Free’s Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape.

Born in captivity in a Ukrainian zoo, Tsar and Jamil were taken from their mother as tiny cubs and sold to a farm where they were exploited as a “tourist attraction”.

Kept in utterly unsuitable conditions, fed a poor-quality diet and without specialist care, the cubs became malnourished and were sickly. Thanks to pressure from local animal protection organisations, they were handed over to a wildlife rescue centre in Kyiv.

Veterinary examinations revealed that both lions had calcium deficiencies and Tsar had bone fractures. However, with proper care and nutrition, Tsar and Jamil began to recover from their ordeal – until further hardship came their way.

Inside the custom-built crate at Natuurhulpcentrum in Belgium before the lionswere transported by road to Luxembourg airport. | Natuurhulpcentrum

The outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2022 presented a new threat to the lions’ future. Despite appalling conditions and the devastating human hardship in the country, an incredible team at the Ukrainian rescue centre worked alongside a Polish zoo and Natuurhulpcentrum (NHC) to evacuate the cats to the safety of NHC’s wildlife rescue centre in Belgium.

Since March 2022, Tsar and Jamil have been cared for by experts at NHC, the halfway house which served as a haven for the lions while Born Free meticulously crafted plans for their re-homing in South Africa.

That epic re-homing journey began last Friday night when the brothers were loaded into custom-made travel crates donated by British Airways Holidays. They travelled by road to Luxembourg airport, before departing for Johannesburg on a specialist flight, provided free of charge by Cargolux.

After 10 hours in the air, the lions touched down in South Africa, where they were met and checked by a Born Free vet, and began the 1000km road trip to the Eastern Cape under the watchful eye of Born Free’s expert animal care team, who stopped regularly to check on the lions and to ensure they had adequate water.

When they reached Born Free’s Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari, the team was delighted to see the lions dash straight out of their crates into the natural bush of their one-hectare enclosure.

Half an hour later, the brothers were reunited, lying together in the night house of their enclosure.

One of the brothers in a crate at Natuurhulpcentrum in Belgium before being transported by road to Luxembourg airport. Natuurhulpcentrum

“After a traumatic start in life, and having already lived in five different homes, it’s a huge relief to know that Tsar and Jamil have arrived safely at their forever home,” said Born Free’s head of rescue and care Maggie Balaskas.

Tsar and Jamil will take time to adjust to the sights, sounds and smells of the bush, and their new space.

“Born Free is incredibly grateful to each and every person who has been part of Tsar and Jamil’s journey, especially the courageous individuals who moved them out of Ukraine to safety and then from Poland on to Belgium, where the wonderful team at Natuurhulpcentrum have been caring for them.

“The logistical feat of relocating two young lions cannot be underestimated. Many hundreds of hours of planning, evaluation and care has been undertaken by Born Free’s experts and specialists.

“British Airways Holidays donated funds to cover three years’ care for Tsar and Jamil, as well as the cost of the custom-built, specially designed crates used for the lions’ relocation.

“Cargolux used their expert services and transported the lions free of charge from Luxembourg to Johannesburg,” said Balaskas.

Three-year-old Jamil, one of two brothers rescued from Ukraine, dashes out of his crate at their new ‘home’ in South Africa at Shamwari Private Game Reserve. The lions have been on a Born Free rescue mission long in years and kilometres. | LYNDON BRANDT

Born Free was founded in 1984 by Bill Travers MBE and Dame Virginia McKenna DBE, who starred in the movie classic Born Free (1966), together with their eldest son, Will Travers OBE, who now leads the charity as its executive president.

The organisation’s mission is to ensure that all wild animals, in captivity or in the wild, are treated with compassion and respect, and are able to live their lives according to their needs. Born Free opposes the exploitation of wild animals in captivity and campaigns to keep wildlife in the wild.

For more information about Born Free, visit: www.bornfree.

Tsar and Jamil at Natuurhulpcentrum in Belgium. The centre rescues and releases indigenous animals and served as a halfway house for the brothers.

Independent on Saturday