If you’ve ever boycotted a circus, a zoo or a fur farm in the name of animal rights, you’ll understand the heartbreak involved in the rescue of captive animals. South African Lionsrock Cat Sanctuary has a powerful international voice and is bringing the big cats home.
My Lionsrock article is in this month’s FlyMango JUICE in-flight magazine. It can also be read online pages 49-53, or below.
I watch as the golden-maned lion, Motan, steps forward tentatively, gently placing one foot in front of the other, struggling with the unfamiliar sensation of the earth under his paws. This is the first taste of a new life that awaits him at Lionsrock in South Africa. After living in a tiny concrete enclosure that he and his female companion Pisa were forced to share at a neglected zoo in Rafah on the ravaged and war-torn Hamas run Gaza Strip, it is clear that for both lions, settling in and building confidence will take lots of time and professional care.
Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary is a collaboration with the global charity Four Paws International whose message is loud and clear – that animals be treated with the empathy, respect and the understanding they deserve. Situated near Bethlehem in the Free State, Lionsrock homes over 100 big cats. They are mostly rescue animals, removed from zoos, circuses, private breeders and war-torn countries. Leopard Bakari, tiger Laziz, lion Simba, a cheetah and a caracal have all found lifelong homes and care here.
By the looks of it, they’d never felt grass under their feet before.
My visit coincided with the arrival of the two lions from Gaza Zoo, which has since been closed after continued violence and conflict in the area. All animals were rescued and moved across to Jordan, and from there, shipped to various sanctuaries that were identified for them. Both Motan and Pisa landed at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg this April and were transported to Lionsrock. Hildegard Pirker, head of the animal welfare department at Lionsrock, is satisfied with the outcome. “The lions arrived in a relatively good condition and were released into a special care unit. Both will be closely monitored, and we will evaluate their wellbeing throughout.”
Here on the pristine and peaceful 1 200 hectare property, these cats are offered a safe haven in large beautifully constructed enclosures that hug the side of a rock with views of the wilderness. A crew of highly trained and experienced animal welfare experts monitor their wellbeing, ensure their safety, provide appropriate stimulation and create as good a life for them as possible in their new forever home.
Working closely with the local authorities on the rescue, American journalist and businessman Eric S. Margolis and the French animal welfare organisation Fondation 30 Millions d’Amis supported the Four Paws rescue mission with generous donations. Four Paws has been active in Gaza since 2014 and has already evacuated and closed two zoos there; Al-Bisan and Khan Younis Zoo. After the rescue of the Rafah zoo animals, there are only two more zoos left in the Gaza Strip and the hope is that those animals too shall find their sanctuaries.
Among the other animals, you will encounter at Lionsrock are lions Saeed from Aleppo in Syria, and Simba from Iraq. Several lions were also removed from cruel conditions at Romanian zoos and tiger siblings from the Dartmoor Zoo in the United Kingdom. Tiger Laziz was rescued from a tiny cage in Khan Yunis Zoo in Gaza, reportedly named the worst zoo in the world after neglected animals were mummified and put up for display there. Numerous lions were also removed from a South African breeding farm that services the lion petting industry.
Each cat has a heartbreaking background story, coupled with a resilient and brave team that fought and negotiated to bring about their rescue. They are safe now, and nothing matters more than their absolute protection. But let’s not forget that these are the lucky ones, and thousands still live in torturous conditions worldwide.
It’s important to ensure that we are part of the solution and are not contributing in any way to the problem. Be vigilant. Red flags include seemingly benign interactive experiences with lion and cheetah cubs, breeding and trading in wildlife and using lions as a form of entertainment.
Lionsrock offers accommodation ranging from self-catering chalets and double rooms for approximately 55 guests in their lodge. There is an on-site restaurant that offers a variety of tasty meals, all of which are prepared using ingredients sourced from surrounding farms. There are plenty of hiking trails and educational walks and talks about animal welfare. I completed a 10km hike that was rewarded with excellent views across the land.
There’s also the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the Eastern Free State, whilst knowing that the money you spend on your accommodation, will help fund the upkeep of the precious rescue animals. Expect encounters with wildebeest, zebra, waterbuck, springbok, bontebok and wild horses.
The Essential Details
Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary is situated about 23km outside of Bethlehem; 13km on a gravel road. Tel: +27 (0)58 304 1691 firstname.lastname@example.org All proceeds at Lionsrock Sanctuary and Lodge go directly towards the benefit of the rescued animals. www.lionsrock.org. I’ll be going back to Lionsrock in late September, and cannot wait to experience it and share the news.
Below a series of pictures from the rescue, as well as from Lionsrock.
Celebrating the big cat’s arrival home, in the place I grew up in.
Read my other published articles here. Many of the pics supplied, the rest by me.