An extraordinary “Lion-Air” rescue mission by a team from the UK is to fly 33 abused circus big cats – back to Africa.
The airlift – which will fly the 33 lions on a specially chartered Boeing 747 – is the biggest in history.
Almost all of the rescued lions have been mutilated to remove their claws. One has lost an eye, another is almost blind, and many have smashed and broken teeth.
The big cats were saved by Animal Defenders International from 10 circuses in Peru and Colombia.
Now the animals, which have been rescued from horrific conditions by a UK animal rights organisation, will live the rest of their lives under the African sun.
The lions, which endured years confined in cages in trucks and a brutal life in circuses, are heading to huge natural enclosures at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa.
ADI is chartering a Boeing 747 to transport all 33 lions with a veterinary team.
President Jan Creamer, who is leading the rescue mission, said: “We are delighted that these lions who have suffered so much will be going home to Africa where they belong.
“The climate and environment are perfect for them.”
The Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary is set in 5,000 hectares on a private estate in Limpopo Province. The sanctuary is already home to eight rescued lions and tigers in large acreage habitats of pristine African bush.
Sanctuary founder Savannah Heuser said: “We are deeply honoured and privileged to be part of such a massive operation.
“We salute ADI for saving animals and ending suffering. Let’s bring these 33 to Africa. Let’s bring them home.”
“Their lives were forcibly wasted away in horrific tiny cages, the doing of mindless circus acts, I cannot start to comprehend the endless days suffering that these animals had to endure.”
“They have a lot of lost time to make up for. They will live out the rest of their lives in a natural habitat, the closest they can ever come to freedom.”
Peru’s wild animal circus act was passed recently in 2011. From August 2014 to July 2015 ADI tackled every circus that housed wild animals. Some circuses went into hiding to avoid being caught. One circus did manage to give the ADI team the slip by retreating into Ecuador.
“Seeing these lions go home to where they truly belong will be a testament to the commitment of wildlife officials and the governments in Peru and Colombia to change the treatment of animals,” said Creamer.
“We really need financial support for this move. It is more expensive to relocate these animals to Africa, but who can put a price on taking them home to where they belong? It also sends such a clear and important message about protecting wildlife in their natural habitats and ranges.”