After years of being trapped behind bars, confined in small spaces and forced to perform to crowds, 33 lions will soon be airlifted to safety to start their news lives in Africa.
A life in captivity has left these magnificent animals mutilated and many without claws. One lion has lost an eye, another is almost blind and many have broken teeth as a result of their circus lives.
But finally these magnificent animals, rescued by Animal Defenders International (ADI) from ten circuses in Peru and Colombia, can live out the rest of their days in natural enclosures at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa.
Many of the lions were in an appalling state when rescued
The airlift will take place in October and will be a culmination of ADI's work with the Peruvian and Columbian governments to eliminate the use of wild animals in circuses.
Jan Creamer, ADI president, who is leading the rescue mission in Peru, 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. When we visited Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary we knew this is a dream come true for ADI and, more importantly, the lions.”
Some of the lions had severe eye conditions
ADI's evidence of the abuse of circus animals in Latin America led to legislation banning animal acts.
The animal charity's year-long Operation Spirit of Freedom, which worked with the Peru Government SERFOR and ATFFS wildlife departments, as well as police, has seen ADI raid circuses all over the country, facing violent confrontations, rescuing more than 90 animals, travelling thousands of miles, and traversing the Andes with lions.
Nine ex-circus lions from Colombia will join 24 lions from Peru on the flight to South Africa.
They are the first animals to be handed over following Colombia’s ban on wild animal circuses. ADI assumed the lions’ care until the flight was finalised.
The moment a lioness was re-united with her two cubs
The lions' future home will be Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, which is set within 5,000 hectares on a private estate in Limpopo Province, South Africa.
The sanctuary is already home to eight rescued lions and tigers in large acreage habitats of pristine African bush, has a no breeding policy and is not open to the public.
Savannah Heuser, founder of Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, said: “The change that is being offered to these 33 lions will change their entire world.
“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.”
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ADI is chartering a Boeing 747 to transport all 33 lions with an ADI veterinary team, direct from Lima to Johannesburg and is funding the construction of habitats for the lions at Emoya, ready for the arrival of the lions in late October.
More than 90 animals have been rescued during the ADI operation, which also provided assistance to the Peruvian authorities on the issue of wildlife crime.
ADI is finishing a large construction program for more than 50 native wild animals rescued during the operation in two parts of the Amazon, including bears, six species of monkeys, coati mundis, kinkajous, and a puma.
Ms Creamer said the release of these wild species was a “testament to the commitment of wildlife officials and the governments in Peru and Colombia to change the treatment of animals”.
Peru’s wild animal circus ban was passed in 2011. Between August 2014 and July 2015, the ADI team identified and raided every circus with wild animals.
There is now just one circus reported to have a lioness, which is still yet to be found after it was pursued into Ecuador by the ADI team in July this year. Wildlife officials and the local ADI team are on alert should the circus reappear.
ADI previously enforced Bolivia’s animal circus ban, relocating many animals within the country and taking 29 lions to two sanctuaries in the US, and a baboon to the UK. ADI’s Operation Spirit of Freedom in Peru and Colombia has been an even larger undertaking.
But the financial cost of moving the lions to South Africa is extremely high.
Those who would like to contribute to ADI's efforts, click here.