Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

Life begins for the Lion Ark Prides

Posted: 18 November 2011. Updated: 9 April 2015


At the end of last year, securing a ban on the use of animals in circuses in Bolivia, we completed the rescue of EVERY animal from circuses across the country.

Six monkeys, a coati mundi, a deer and horse were relocated in Bolivia or returned to the wild. We then moved all the remaining lions to the US in the biggest airlift of its kind: Operation Lion Ark. Now these lions are living free, in family prides, in four massive natural enclosures covering 80 acres at The Wild Animal Sanctuary near Denver, Colorado.

Having received veterinary treatment, including extensive dental work, our lions were introduced into new family prides and enjoyed a remarkable return to health. Finally, the 25 Bolivian lions have been released into their new outdoor enclosures.

Operation Lion Ark was one of our biggest challenges to date and culminated in a record-breaking airlift of 25 lions, bringing them to the US.

The repercussions from the Bolivian rescue are still rippling through the region – Peru has become the latest country to ban wild animal circuses, something they would likely have been reluctant to do had we not proven that there are people willing to ensure such laws are enforced.

Most of all, this operation has been about the animals we have been able to rescue from those filthy, rusting cages and bring to a place of sanctuary.

Recovery and rehabilitation

In February, when the lions arrived at The Wild Animal Sanctuary (TWAS),they were first placed in our specially-built ‘biosphere’ ­– a custom-built heated habitat of enclosures with trees and grass, under a fabric roof that lets in sunlight. This allowed the lions to adjust to their new surroundings, enjoy space, and start to be introduced to one another.

In some cases, immediate veterinary attention was needed: Colo Colo, by far the most aggressive lion of the group back in Bolivia, was in urgent need of dental care. Thanks to the Peter Emily Foundation, who specialise in advanced veterinary dental services for captive exotic animals, he and others with mouth problems were able to receive treatment and all have since made a full recovery.

Their new homes

Meanwhile, thanks to a generous donation by American TV personality Bob Barker, expansion had begun for the construction of vast new enclosures. Everything went over-budget, but our generous donor did not mind. ADI and our partners at TWAS wanted the lions to have a life experience as close as possible to that they would have in nature. We wanted the years suffered in captivity by the older lions to be put far from their minds and the three cubs to grow up in an environment as close to freedom as possible.

Eighty acres of land were transformed into separate enclosures. We planned to group the lions into new ‘prides’, and give each pride its own space to roam.

As well as putting the necessary fencing and basic safety measures in place, the team installed a variety of enrichment facilities – wooden constructions to climb and play on, hill-like mounds and underground dens. The result is a diverse and exciting space with plenty to keep the lions busy and stimulated, and surrounded by incredible views of the mountains which circle the rolling grassland (lions like views).

These are the biggest lion sanctuary enclosures in the world.

The new prides

By the time the new outdoor enclosures had been constructed we had begun to introduce the lions into their new groups.

Of course we already had some family groups – BamBam and Morena and their boisterous family, Marta, Maria, Rosita, Rosa, Rosario and Campeon; Hercules and Kiara and their family of five (including the three cubs); Colo Colo, Muneca and Lulu, who were the most clearly traumatised when we found them, made up our third pride.

Making families out of the others, however, would be rather more difficult to work out.

India, shy and small, had lived her life alone in a tiny cage with only the company of humans. Our first step was to try to introduce her to another lioness, Kenya, who had also spent her life in solitude and without knowing other lions – her cage was completely enclosed by four metal walls. Boxed in, she was agitated and nervous when we found her.

Though they appeared to get on fairly well at first, it became clear that their mutual nervousness and agitation was too much. It was decided that Kenya would be introduced to live with a group made up of the two brothers: Temuco and Pancho, who would be placed with the two playful sisters, Chitara and Dalila. The idea was successful, and Kenya slotted into the group without confrontation.
India, meanwhile, was matched with the oldest solitary male lion of the group, Kimba, whose relaxed and open nature ensured the two got on very well. After 11 years in solitary confinement, Kimba had a little friend.

Their first steps onto grass

Once the lions had settled into their groups and their outdoor areas were fully constructed, it was time to plan their release.

We would let the lions into their new enclosures in three stages. First, BamBam’s pride of eight were released. Then the mixed group – Temuco, Pancho, Chitara, Dalila and Kenya. Lastly, the final three prides: Kimba and India; Colo Colo, Muneca and Lulu; Hercules, Kiara, Fida, Panchula and the cubs (Bob, Nancy and Percy).

As the release of the first group began, despite the weather reports that this would be a dry day, it started snowing. It was windy and the snow was coming in sideways. The TWAS and ADI teams were anxiously waiting outside the new lion habitat.

As soon as the gate was opened, the lions approached the opening to sniff the Colorado air. At first they were very wary, peeking out hesitantly. Then eventually, beginning with Maria and Rosita, the lions started to emerge and, all at once, they were outside, exploring, running, playing and rolling around. Even Campeon was trotting around and keeping up with the rest of the pride.

Soon, the lions were roaming around the whole 20 acres, the colour of their coats blending in with the prairie.

By the time the second group were ready to step out a month later, the plains had been transformed. Where there was once a rusty coloured expanse stretching out Savannah-like, the enclosures were covered in a thick layer of bright green grass, sparkling over the enclosures and reaching right up to the edge of the biosphere.

Pancho and Temuco came racing out, running and playing from the start. The two big male lions, who once lived in a cage about the size of a bed, were now charging about and lying in the sun, with 20 acres at their feet.

Chitara, Dalila and Kenya followed them out. Slowly at first, they roamed through the long grass. Then all at once they burst into a sprint across the plain.

Finally, it was the turn of the last three groups. As the last lions emerged, we realised this was perhaps the most special release. It was May, and wild flowers and long grass had bloomed – above knee height on us, but so tall that some of the lions seemed to just disappear into it.

Once released, it was a beautiful sight to see their shaggy golden faces coming in and out of view, tails occasionally whipping up over the top of the grass. All five prides had finally stepped out into their vast new enclosures and looked completely at home. After a while watching them all gradually settling down, we left them to it. Their future now stretches in front of them.


We first met some of these animals in 2005. ADI field officers in Bolivia had filmed and photographed them in some of the most shocking conditions: alone, in tiny crates; pregnant lionesses forced to jump through rings of fire; travelling from country to country. A cycle of deprivation, confinement and violence, with no end in sight.

And now we were watching those same lions walk into paradise: a rolling expanse of grass and trees, in the Colorado hills.

Our undercover investigations are the engine-room that set them free. We followed that with the public awareness campaign and lobbying for the new law.

We want to do this for more animals. With your support, we can continue to fund our investigations, campaigns and rescue operations.

Thank you.

© Animal Defenders International 2019