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HomeWorld NewsLions traumatised by Ukraine war find 'forever home' in South African reserve

Lions traumatised by Ukraine war find ‘forever home’ in South African reserve

Lions find ‘forever home’ in South African cat sanctuary

Two lion brothers rescued from Kyiv just two days after war broke out in Ukraine have swapped bombs for undisrupted birdsong after a long road to freedom.

Tsar and Jamil – robbed of their innocence, torn away from their mother and thrust into exploitation on an ostrich farm – were freed into a sanctuary in South Africa today.

At a tender three years old, these majestic lions have been released into a 2.5-acre “forever home” on Shamwari Private Game Reserve following a gruelling eight thousand mile journey.

Conservation charity Born Free has rallied for their rescue to the plains of the savanna.

A lion bolts from its custom-made crate enclosure after a three-day journey to Shamwari (Image: Born Free / Lyndon Brandt)

Catherine Gillson, Born Free manager at Shamwari, said: “They have been shifted to safety so many times in their young lives that we hope the final stage of their journey ‘back to Africa’ will bring them peace and a chance to enjoy a more natural life – a million miles away from the existence they endured in their formative years.

“We look forward to providing them with the care and respect they deserve, in an environment that is as close as possible to the wild as you can get.”

As volunteers lifted a metal gate, Tsar bolted for African soil from the confines of his custom-built crate padded with grass bedding – which kept him safe over his three-day journey from Belgium.

Rangers, charity workers and volunteers were on tenterhooks as Jamil’s gate was lifted soon after because he had struggled with the gruelling 18-hour drive from Johannesburg in sweltering 36C.

Lion rescued from Ukraine enters sanctury for first time

Lion rescued from Ukraine enters sanctury for first time (Image: Born Free / Lyndon Brandt)

But eyes filled with tears as he shot out like a bullet with his windswept mane on full display – forever free from the confines of a crate, and returned to his ancestral homeland on African soil.

The handsome brothers, who will never be able to be released into the wild, immediately sought refuge in a night house at the back of their enclosure because concrete has so far brought them more comfort than grassy woodland which they have hardly known.

Glen Vena, animal care manager at Born Free, met the pair in Johannesburg and joined them for their final journey home to Port Elizabeth.

He said: “They ran into the enclosure and came across the night houses and went straight in. I think this is where they’re currently most comfortable after the trip.

Born Free worked tirelessly to ensure the lions' safe release

Born Free worked tirelessly to ensure the lions’ safe release (Image: Born Free / Lyndon Brandt)

“This is where they feel safe for now. It will take them a couple of days or weeks before they start to venture and explore the enclosure which is the size of a rugby field.

“I can’t wait to watch them go from strength to strength.”

Several pounds of horse was the first meal on the menu for the animals who had a desperate thirst.

Fresh water in a nearby trough provided a lifeline in the landscape for their parched and panting tongues.

The heart-wrenching saga of these brothers began in a Ukrainian zoo, where they were cruelly ripped from their mother and thrust into the clutches of exploitation on an ostrich farm to satisfy the curiosity of tourists.

The young lions became malnourished and sickly while being kept in “utterly unsuitable conditions” without specialist care, and being fed a poor-quality diet.

Their salvation came in the form of a wildlife rescue centre in Kyiv, where the full extent of their agony was laid bare through veterinary examinations—calcium deficiencies and bone fractures etched a tale of suffering.

The duo began to recover from their harrowing ordeal, only to face another tragic turn when Ukraine found itself under siege in 2022.

The outbreak of war in Kyiv cast a dark shadow over the lions’ precarious future.

But an incredible team at the Ukrainian rescue centre worked tirelessly to evacuate the cats to Natuurhulpcentrum (NHC) in Belgium, via a short stay at a Polish zoo.

This half-way house has served as a haven for the lions since March 2022 while Born Free meticulously crafted plans for their re-homing in South Africa.

The lions’ for freedom was exemplified by their fiery spirit.

Tsar and Jamil first travelled by road to Luxembourg airport, before departing for Johannesburg on a specialist flight, provided for free by Cargolux.

After 10 hours in the air, the lions touched down in South Africa where they were assessed by Dr Johan.

Tsar and Jamil’s road trip to the Eastern Cape province, provided by courier firm DHL, then began under the watchful eye of Born Free’s expert animal care team who stopped every 30 minutes at one point to care for the animals.

The animals arrived with artificial bruises on their face – and chewed water bowls that were no match for their razor-sharp incisors.

Dr Johan Joubert, head of Wildlife at Shamwari, said: “What I found quite interesting about these animals is that they are more aggressive and feisty than the other Born Free animals that we have.”

The vet, who accompanied the animals on their journey home, said: “On the way, it became very hot and they destroyed their water buckets so we had to try to find a way to improvise to give them water with a watering can.

“Tsar drank quite nicely but Jamil didn’t want to drink. We had to make plans with the truck so at some stage we had to open sails on the side so we could get airflow in and control the temperature.”

British Airways Holidays which has generously donated funds to cover three years’ of Tsar and Jamil care – the 58th and 59th lions to find sanctuary since Born Free began.

Their rehoming is especially poignant for Born Free as it coincides with the charity’s 40th anniversary.

And now, as time goes on, the echoes of Tsar and Jamil’s past will be drowned out by the rhythmic heartbeat of Africa – where they have always belonged.

• To donate to help more big cats, visit this link.

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