Totota, Liberia - Dethroned, deported and then declawed: What a difference a year has made for Liberia's exiled ex-President Charles Taylor.

As Taylor gave up his presidency and flew from Liberia's rebel-besieged capital, Monrovia, last August, he left behind hundreds of thousands of Liberian refugees, tens of thousands of filled graves and one African symbol of his erstwhile strength: a pet lioness, Ma Juah.

As Taylor's fortunes shifted and he settled into asylum in Nigeria's southern jungles, Ma Juah, age 6, stayed behind on a farm in government-controlled central Liberia.

After months sharing the privations of Liberia's three million people - including hunger and the death of a family member - Ma Juah joined Liberia's lucky few on Friday.

Unable to care for her, Taylor's family officially handed custody of Ma Juah to a Britain-based charity, the Born Free Foundation, ceding control of an animal whose fangs and claws symbolised Taylor's power during his reign.

The charity was expected to fly Ma Juah to nearby Ghana by overnight courier DHL on Friday, before sending her on to an animal sanctuary in South Africa.

"Liberia has been through a process of war, and Ma Juah got lost," said Taylor's wife, Jewel, at an official handover ceremony at Ma Juah's farm late Thursday.

"My family and I are very pleased... that she will be properly taken care of because we do not have the ability to do so anymore," she said during the festivities, repeatedly drowned out by Ma Juah's roars.

Missing from the ceremony at Totota, 150km north-east of Monrovia, was the ex-Liberian leader, whose asylum agreement with Nigeria prohibits him from traveling home.

Taylor launched Liberia into crisis in 1989 when he and a small band of followers invaded Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast.

Taylor's movement soon splintered and Liberia became the battlefield for a brutal factional fight that would kill tens of thousands and spread into surrounding countries.

In 1996, Taylor emerged the strongest warlord and in 1997 won elections arranged under a peace deal.

The next year, the president of Niger gave Taylor two lion cubs, putting him in a pantheon of African leaders who associated themselves with powerful African animals.

While Taylor raised Ma Juah and her brother, Philip, he enjoyed the opulent perks of Liberian leadership - fancy cars, large villas and overseas travel - as the country crumbled, fueling popular discontent.

Rebels, including many former Taylor loyalists, launched their own fight in 1999.

By early 2003, the insurgents had captured much of Liberia, Africa's oldest republic and until the mid-1980s one of the continent's wealthiest nations.

As the rebels shelled Monrovia and world leaders called for him to step down, Taylor capitulated on August 4, taking up Nigeria's offer of protection.

A week later, rebels signed a peace deal as international peacekeepers deployed in the city.

Nearly one year later, Liberia has grown calm and raised hopes that nearly 15 years of crisis may be in the history of a country founded in the 1800s by freed American slaves.

But with Liberia in tatters - electricity and water grids smashed, schools ruined, government buildings crumbling - the population continues to suffer.

About 250 000 are estimated killed in the years of fighting. One-third of Liberia's people have been forced into relief camps. Illiteracy, Aids and hunger thrive.

The lions, too, went hungry, Ma Juah's saddened Liberian caretakers say.

After going unfed for 24 days in September, Philip died, leaving Ma Juah the sole feline on the farm. Neighbours ultimately found her, weakened and starving, and were able to get her aid, caretakers say.

Ma Juah's handover ceremony drew a small crowd from a nearby relief camp swelled with tens of thousands of Liberians who fled their homes during fighting.

James Kollie, one of the displaced, looked on.

"This lioness and the male represented not only the power of the former president, but our traditional heritage," he said.

"People who cared for it should have come here to improve the conditions in which it was living, instead of taking it away." - Sapa-AP