WATCH: Leopards held in illegal breeding facility in Poland travel almost 13,000 km to their new home in the Eastern Cape

The leopards were released last week into their new home. Picture: Born Free

The leopards were released last week into their new home. Picture: Born Free

Published May 6, 2024


Two leopards rescued from an illegal breeding facility in Poland have travelled almost 13,000 kilometres and safely homed in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

The mother and daughter, Alda and Ginny, believed to be around 14 and eight-years-old, have been re-homed at the Big Cat Sanctuary at the Shamwari Private Game Reserve.

According to Born Free, an international wildlife charity rescuing and protecting wild animals from exploitation, and conserving threatened species and their natural habitats, the leopards faced a deeply uncertain future as victims of the illegal trade in and trafficking of wild animals.

Until 2017, they were being kept, along with many other animals, in terrible conditions at an unlawful breeding facility in Śrem near Poznań, Poland. When police and authorities raided the private farm that year, they found creatures crammed in dirty, inadequate conditions, some living in their own excrement and others without access to the outdoors.

The organisation said Alda and Ginny were confined to a tiny, dark, barren cell with very little outside space. The pair’s potential fate will never be fully known. It’s possible they could have been sold into a life of exploitation in a circus, into captivity in an unaccredited zoo, or even as body ‘parts’, fuelling the vile international trade in big cat skins and bones, used by some for ‘traditional medicine’. All extremely distressing outcomes for wild animals that are caught up in the cruel and illegal wildlife trade.

The facility in Śrem was shut down by the Polish authorities and the leopards, along with other animals, were confiscated.

It took years of legal issues and complex paperwork to re-home the mother and daughter.

Born Free’s head of Policy, Dr Mark Jones said the motive for holding the leopards remains unknown.

The leopards were released last week into their new home. Picture: Born Free

“While the purpose for which these poor leopards and so many other wild animals were illegally bred and kept in the Polish facility isn’t entirely clear, it’s highly likely that, if they hadn’t been rescued, their future would have been very bleak indeed.

“The trade in wild animals, both legal and illegal, is a major cause of biodiversity loss, and one of the principal risk factors for the emergence of future pandemics, as well as being devastating for the individual welfare of countless wild animals.

“Born Free works tirelessly to end the illegal trade in wildlife, and to ensure any legal trade is robustly regulated to protect the welfare of affected animals and eliminate any associated risks to wildlife conservation and animal or human health.

“We were instrumental in the development and recent revision of the European Commission’s Action Plan Against Wildlife Trafficking and are promoting the need for an international agreement to combat the illicit trade in wildlife, always intending to keep wildlife in the wild, where it belongs,” Jones said.

The leopards were released last week into their new home. Picture: Born Free

A team of experts from the Natuurhulpcentrum (NHC), a wildlife rescue centre in Belgium travelled to collect the animals and found them with filthy coats and signs of malnourishment.

Since 2017, the dedicated staff at NHC have cared for the mother and daughter, giving them the specialist care they needed to begin recovering from their ordeal.

The NHC was only ever meant to be a temporary home for the pair. At the time of confiscation, the Polish authorities permitted the leopards to be taken to Belgium, but it took a number of years, and hundreds of hours of hard work, to secure all the correct documentation and certificates so that plans could finally be put in place for a permanent home for the leopards.

Founder of NHC, Sil Janssen said they rescued the leopards and were happy to be working with Born Free.

“The animals were confiscated because they were poorly cared for and kept in appalling conditions. The animals were kept in concrete cages that were far too small, without any distractions. We are very happy we can work with Born Free again to give these animals a very good permanent home. We are sure that our leopards will do very well now in the care of Born Free at Shamwari,” Janssen said.

Last week, Alda and Ginny travelled almost 13,000 km by road and air on international and domestic flights to reach their destination.

“Knowing the dire conditions Alda and Ginny were confiscated from, these two victims of the illegal wildlife trade truly deserve a tranquil, enriched life at Born Free’s Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari. Having waited so long to be legally allowed to leave Belgium, and what was only ever intended to be the temporary care of the wonderful NHC team, we are all overjoyed to see them finally being able to explore the new environment of their lifetime home in South Africa.

“Born Free has spent four decades tirelessly working to improve the lives of individual animals - Alda and Ginny are now part of that proud heritage. Two more lives transformed,” said head of Rescue and Care at Born Free, Maggie Balaskas.

The pair were released on Wednesday, May 1, and initially were weary of their surroundings. The leopards are being housed in a 2.5-acre enclosure.

The Born Free team will be closely monitoring the pair.

Born Free manager at the Shamwari Private Game Reserve, Catherine Gillson said the dramatic change the leopards are about to experience in their lives will be a privilege to watch.

“The horrendous conditions that they experienced while living in their birthplace of Poland in an illegal breeding centre is going to be a stark contrast to the natural thick vegetation in their enclosures surrounded by their indigenous ancestors on Shamwari Private Game Reserve.

“While sadly they can never fully be released to the wild, we hope they will quickly adapt to the new environment where they will have natural enrichment, be fed the correct diet, and live out their lives in the respectful care of our dedicated Born Free Animal Care Team,” Gillson said.

Born Free said it was profoundly grateful to all parties that have contributed to the success of the relocation of the animals. In particular, the Olsen Animal Trust generously donated funds to cover Alda and Ginny’s lifetime care. Cargolux, for their expert services and for transporting the leopards free of charge from Luxembourg to Johannesburg, and BidAir Cargo for their specialist assistance and pro bono flight from Johannesburg to Gqeberha.

“This truly team effort means these beautiful leopards now have a new life in their natural, wild bush enclosure under the South African sun.

Alda and Ginny’s re-homing is especially poignant, as this year marks Born Free’s 40th anniversary.

“Throughout those four decades, Born Free has worked tirelessly to rescue individual wild animals like Alda and Ginny from abusive captivity, to prevent countless more being exploited by the wildlife trade, and to reduce the negative impact this trade has on biodiversity. Born Free’s fight against the global scourge of wildlife trafficking will continue until the brutal practice, netting millions of pounds for criminal gangs, is brought to an end,” the organisation said.