From the Circus to their Ancestral Homeland

Rescued lions

Four adult lions, all born in captivity, housed in cramped, rusty trailers, and compelled to perform in a travelling circus for most of their lives, have finally taken their first precious steps on African soil.

Sold as young cubs, Angela, Bellone, Saïda and Louga were all removed from a French circus in 2018 after their owner relinquished them. Since then, they’ve been looked after by experts at a rescue centre near Lyon. In early 2019, international wildlife charity, Born Free, became aware of the lions and their heart-breaking story, and promised to give them a forever home at their big cat sanctuary at Shamwari, in South Africa.

Generous Born Free supporters raised the funds to transport the lions to their ancestral homeland. Preparations were made, special crates built, permits obtained and flights booked. And then Covid struck a brutal blow to the plans – travel restrictions meant the whole move had to be put on hold indefinitely. And so, like many of us affected by the impact of the pandemic, these magnificent ‘Lions of Lockdown’ were forced to wait for the journey that will transform their lives.

Their great adventure finally began at their rescue centre, Tonga Terre d’Accueil near Lyon, France, on Tuesday morning 8th Feb 2022, travelling by road to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, before departing by air for South Africa – their ancestral home.

All four lions were remarkably calm and relaxed during their journey, and when they reached their final destination, Born Free’s Big Cat sanctuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, the team were delighted to see them all emerge confidently and enthusiastically from their travelling crates, and start to explore the native landscape of their 3-acre enclosure.

Louga, the only male in the group, has enjoyed sitting in the shade of one of the trees, keeping a watchful eye over the three females who have remained close together. They have all been eating and drinking well, and the Born Free vet and welfare team are confident they are quickly adapting to their new surroundings, overlooking the reserve.

Angela, Bellone, Saïda and Louga now join a proud heritage of nearly 50 big cats given new lives in the sanctuary of Shamwari, by Born Free. The Julie Ward Centre, where the lions were released this morning, was opened on 29th March 1997 by our founder, Virginia McKenna OBE, and Shamwari’s original owner, Adrian Gardiner.

The logistical feat of re-locating four adult lions cannot be underestimated. Many hundreds of hours of planning, evaluation and care undertaken by Born Free’s experts and specialists, together with our valued partners at Tonga Terre d’Accueil and specialist animal logistics company Herport in France, Qatar Airways Cargo’s WeQare programme, Shamwari Private Game Reserve, and Pride of Africa Wildlife Solutions in South Africa, have been meticulously invested in ensuring the safety, comfort and security of the lions at every stage of their journey. In addition, we are grateful to Company of Animals for providing storage for the travelling crates.

Born Free would like to officially thank their partners and the many, many generous people involved at every level who’ve ensured the success of this incredible rescue and who made this release a reality.

We are particularly grateful to our friends at Lazy Lions who have generously donated funds to cover a full year’s specialist care for two of the lions, Angela and Louga. Born Free are committed to giving all the lions the life they deserve at Shamwari, but that care comes at a cost. There is an opportunity for any individual or business to be part of the incredible ‘Lions of Lockdown’ story by funding their future in their forever home.

Born Free are grateful for all donations and support because there has never been a more crucial time to protect and prioritise the future for lions. In the 1960s, when the film Born Free was made, there were approximately 200,000 lions in the wild. Today as few as 20,000 remain. A devastating decline of 90% in just 55 years. 

To ensure their survival in the wild and to campaign for their welfare in captivity, 2022 has been named Born Free’s ‘Year of the Lion – a year of action for lions in honour of what would have been the 100th birthday of the charity’s fearless founder Bill Travers MBE. The story of the ‘Lions of Lockdown’ is a testament to everything Bill would have wanted to achieve for lions in captivity.

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