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Animal Defenders International

Lions rescued from circuses in South America to go home to Africa!

Posted: 31 August 2015. Updated: 25 February 2016


Thirty-three lions rescued by Animal Defenders International (ADI) from ten circuses in Peru and Colombia are to go home to their native Africa in the biggest ever airlift of its kind. After suffering years of confinement in barren cages and a brutal life being forced to perform, the lions are heading to huge natural enclosures at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa.

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The airlift in October will be the culmination of ADI’s work with the governments of Peru and Colombia to eliminate the use of wild animals in circuses. ADI evidence of the abuse of circus animals in Latin America led to legislation banning animal acts and then ADI stepped in to help enforce the laws.

Almost all of the rescued lions have been mutilated to remove their claws, one has lost an eye, another is almost blind, and many have smashed and broken teeth because of their circus life, but they will retire in the African sunshine. (pictured above: Rey, Smith and Amazonas in a circus cage in Cusco, Peru last year. It took two dramatic seizure operations by ADI but we saved them all. It was the start of the transformation of their life.)

  • Watch ABC Nightline’s dedicated programme on the rescue here: Part 1 / Part 2

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.”


Working with the Peruvian wildlife departments SERFOR and ATFFS, as well as the police, our year-long Operation Spirit of Freedom mission has seen ADI raid circuses all over the country. We have faced violent confrontations, travelled thousands of miles, and journeyed across the Andes with our rescued lions. Some circuses went underground as the raids commenced, but were eventually caught. (pictured right: Kala having fun in the ADI rescue center in Peru where the lions’ rehabilitation has begun.

Over ninety animals have been rescued during Operation Spirit of Freedom, with ADI also providing assistance to the Peruvian authorities on the issue of wildlife crime. More than 50 native wild animals – including bears, six species of monkeys, coati mundis, kinkajous and a puma – have or will soon be relocated to two Amazon sanctuaries as part of a huge ADI-funded construction programme.

Nine ex-circus lions from Colombia will be joining the 24 lions from Peru on the flight to South Africa, the first big cats handed over following the country’s ban on wild animal circuses. Taken into care by the CDMB regional wildlife authority in Bucaramanga, ADI took on this responsibility until the flight was finalised.

ADI originally planned to take the lions to sanctuaries in the US, but the opportunity to rehome them in their native Africa arose and could not be missed, so plans were immediately put in place to make it happen. Moving the lions to Africa increases the flight costs but it is the ideal home for the lions and we know it is the right thing to do!


Savannah Heuser, founder of Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary says: “Mahatma Gandhi once said; ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’ 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.”

ADI is chartering a huge Boeing 747 to transport all 33 lions with an ADI veterinary team direct from Lima to Johannesburg. Until their flight the lions will remain at the ADI Spirit of Freedom Rescue Centre near Lima, Peru, where they will continue their rehabilitation under ADI veterinary supervision and enjoy their grassy play pens, but the best is yet to come!

ADI is funding the construction of a series of habitats for the rescued lions at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, which will be completed for their arrival in late October. Set in 5,000 hectares of pristine African bush on a private estate in Limpopo Province, the sanctuary has a no breeding policy and is not open to the public, providing our rescued lions with the peaceful retirement they deserve. (pictured above: Rescued lioness at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa. Our rescued lions will enjoy a wonderful natural habitat like this.)

  • Update

ADI now has all the permits in place to fly the 33 lions ADI has rescued from circuses (pictured left one of the lions before being rescued from the circus) in Peru and Colombia home to a new life in a safe sanctuary in South Africa – Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary (pictured right). To fly the 33 lions home will cost $330,000/£230,000, for the flight – $10,000/£7,000 ticket for each lion!

Timing is critical, with the price based on where the aircraft is, the day before we need it – e.g., if it comes from Canada it would cost much more than if it came from Chile. So we’ve given the cargo companies as much notice as possible and need as many options as possible. Our travel crates are ready but there’s a lot to do!

Another flight is needed to bring the nine lions from Colombia to join the 24 Peruvian lions on the flight to South Africa. Dozens of trucks will be used to transport the lions to and from flights in Colombia, Peru and South Africa.

Police and customs will be involved and these are Government law enforcement operations, so there will be extra oversight. The size of the operation and cooperation needed from government officials and airports rules out the Latin America Easter holiday period in March, as well as Peru’s Presidential election period in early April.

We can’t wait to get to Africa with our beautiful lions, but we also have to get it right! We believe we are close to confirming a flight in April.

Our thanks to everyone who has helped get us this far. This has not been just one rescue – this is multiple rescues and over 100 animals rescued. In the 5 months we have waited for the permits from Colombia, Peru and South Africa, it has cost ADI over $100,000/£70,000 just to care for the lions in our temporary facilities.

Now it’s time to send for the lions to go home. So please give what you can.

  • Help us get the lions home to Africa!
  • Donate US $ / Donate £ / Donate via Paypal & Euros

    Find out more about ADI’s Operation Spirit of Freedom

    © Animal Defenders International 2016