An airplane loaded with 33 lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia is due to land on Saturday at Johannesburg’s international airport, where the animals will be moved to live in a private big cat sanctuary in northern South Africa.
Twenty-four of the lions were rescued in raids on circuses operating in Peru by Animal Defenders International, an animal rights group with offices in London and Los Angeles.
Nine other cats were voluntarily surrendered by a circus in Colombia.
Their rescue and imminent move to Africa comes after a two-year investigation by ADI into South America’s circuses, which ultimately helped lead to the ban of wild animals in circuses in both Peru and Colombia, said Angie Greenaway, the group’s executive manager in London.
“These lions have endured hell on earth and now they are heading home to paradise,” said Jan Creamer, ADI’s president, in a statement.
Most of the lions, whose names include Barbie, Zeus and Rolex, had been declawed in their circuses and many had broken or smashed teeth, making it unsafe for them to return to the wild.
The lions’ flight from South America to South Africa will cost roughly $10,000 per cat, raised through donations and online fundraising.
Pictures posted on ADI’s Facebook page on Friday showed cages containing the lions being loaded onto trucks in Lima before they were due to be boarded on the Johannesburg-bound plane.
“These are circus animals so they are used to traveling, unfortunately,” said ADI’s Greenaway. “They have had a life on the road in a confined space, so they travel well.”
After being checked out by a veterinarian in Johannesburg, the cats will be moved to the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in northern Limpopo province, already home to six lions and two Siberian tigers, including one lion which used to be kept in a tiny cage on the streets of Cairo as a tourist attraction.
The 33 new arrivals, which will live in large enclosures in the sanctuary, will not have contact with Emoya’s current residents for the new cats’ own safety, said Savannah Heuser, Emoya’s founder.
The 5,000-hectare sanctuary, which is located on private land, started four years ago as a non-profit, and is not open to the public.
“At the end of the day you need to be realistic — you can’t take the world’s population of cats,” said Heuser.
“These animals are real circus animals… They’ve not been treated with any respect. Those are the animals we want to bring back. It’s their birthright to be in Africa.”