Two lions relocated from Ukraine to a temporary home in Romania are due to make a 5,000-mile journey to a permanent sanctuary in South Africa that big cats ‘absolutely love’.
Simba and Mir are currently being held at a municipal zoo ahead of a planned move to a large reserve in the Eastern Cape where they will be able to roam and enjoy relative freedom.
The war in Ukraine had a devastating impact on animals, with Simba having been rescued from grave peril in the east of the country by two British men who drove him over the border in the back of a van.
The pair are now set to be relocated to Simbonga Game Reserve and Sanctuary run by non-profit group Warriors of Wildlife, which is in the process of securing paperwork and funds for the trip.
Lionel De Lange, the group’s founder and director, said: ‘The lions are in a municipal zoo that is holding them temporarily for us and it is not ideal.
‘I don’t like zoos at all, in fact, I have rescued animals out of far better conditions than those they are in.
‘But they have been kind enough to give us a temporary home for them.
‘Because there was no paperwork getting them out of Ukraine it makes it a little bit more difficult, so we have got a little bit of red tape to get through before they get on a flight at Bucharest, through a connecting city, depending on the airline, and get to South Africa.
‘There are no sanctuaries for lions in Romania so there’s no question – we would never, ever leave them there.’
Simba had been in grave danger near the frontline with Russian forces in eastern Ukraine before being rescued by British humanitarian volunteers Tim Locks and Jonathan Weaving.
Clocking up 2,600 road miles, they spent five days on the road, which included driving with their living cargo in the back of the Ford Transit to the zoo in Radauti, north-eastern Romania.
Mr De Lange is now securing paperwork to give the big cats a home at his 14,000 square metre reserve – where they will join 28 other lions and a tiger relocated from Ukraine since 2019.
All were bred into captivity and some were saved after the country imposed a ban on wild animals in circuses. They were said to have languished in cramped conditions after being unable to make money for their owners.
The lions will spend between 72 and 86 hours in their crates during the journey, which includes a final 17-hour drive from Johannesburg to the Eastern Cape, Mr De Lange said.
The flight from Bucharest alone will cost up to $18,000 (£15,500) once permits, transit and other costs are taken into account.
There is also the question of the stress placed on the animals, who are only sedated for the loading process before being given a reversal drug and flown in dimmed and heated conditions.
However, Mr De Lange told Metro.co.uk that the warm temperatures and open-air life awaiting the lions is worth the complexity of the evacuation, which follows the animals’ separate arrivals in Romania at the end of March.
‘At the game reserve they have a phenomenal life,’ he said.
‘Some of the lions have never slept on grass or experienced rain because they’ve been in a zoo with a roof over their heads.
‘Here they have a natural habitat with pools and a night shelter they can escape to, as a lot of these animals take a while to adapt as they are coming out of cramped conditions.
‘Even though they are apex predators, they still get scared and worried about what is going on around them.
‘We give them an introductory camp of 2,500 sq meters, a quarter of a hectare, so they can get used to that new environment.
‘They can’t roam beyond an electric fence but in that space it’s all natural African bush, fallen trees, normal trees, grass and rocks.
”They absolutely love it, it’s as if they’ve lived here their whole lives. They live to do whatever they want to do, we don’t pressurise them, we don’t force them to do anything, they do everything in their own time. We just make sure they are fed, healthy and safe.’
Mir had been kept in a cage ‘covered in filth’, with a lack of clean drinking water at the time of his evacuation from near Lviv in western Ukraine, according to Warriors of Wildlife.
The lion, whose name means, ‘peace’ in Ukrainian, was said to have had a ‘non-existent future’ before he was relocated on March 27.
Mr De Lange, 56, plans to travel to Romania and Ukraine later this month as he organizes the relocation of the pair.
The fate of animals has been in the backdrop of an unfolding humanitarian crisis that includes allegations of war crimes committed by Russian forces and their proxies since the invasion began 71 days.
Supporters of wildlife groups have pointed out that the treatment of animals is a marker of humanity and there are few organizations working on the ground to evacuate them when compared with those supporting people.
‘None of these animals have ever asked to be put in the predicament they are in,’ Mr De Lange said.
‘It’s humans, us, who have put them in the situation they are in. There are organizations out there rescuing people and very few doing what we do.
‘We as humans have put the animals in this position and it’s up to us to take care of them.’
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