Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

Entire circus seized in Mozambique

Posted: 22 February 2007. Updated: 16 July 2012


In a dramatic international rescue mission, Animal Defenders International, conservation group Task Force and a local animal rights group in South Africa joined forces to rescue every single animal from the Akef Egyptian Circus, stationed in Maputo, Mozambique. This was the first time such a rescue had ever taken place. The animals had been abandoned to starve before we moved in to save 6 lions, 3 tigers, 1 African rock python, 3 horses (a mare and her very young foal, plus a stallion), and 7 dogs.

The tigers, lions and python are CITES-listed animals and come under the protection of this international agreement. [CITES – Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species].

In a decisive move, the Mozambique government confiscated all of the animals for compassionate and animal welfare reasons, and placed them in the care of Animal Defenders International. The python, tigers and lions were Confiscated for CITES and import permit contraventions, in addition to welfare reasons. The horses were rehomed in Mozambique and the other animals, the lions tigers pythons and dogs were moved to South Africa where they spent some time in quarantine while waiting for a permanent home.

During the six years prior to the rescue the Akef Egyptian Circus gained notoriety throughout Africa, dogged by persistent allegations of defective documentation and welfare neglect. There were discrepancies in numbers and species of animals in Akef’s possession when entering and leaving countries.

In November 1995 Akef’s entered Mozambique from Zimbabwe, setting up in the centre of Maputo for a one-month stay. In January 1996 the owner, El Sayed Hussein Akef, left for Egypt, abandoning both the animals and his workers. It was reported that he had left to make arrangements for passage of staff and animals to Egypt, but no sign has been seen of him since.

In June 1996, the plight of the circus animals and staff came to the attention of a local businesswoman, Mrs Elana Son, administrative manager of Polana Tours Lda. On seeing the state of the animals, Mrs Son purchased their food and arranged for veterinary attention. The animals were extremely malnourished and some were seriously ill. Despite these efforts on 31st July Raj, a two-year-old tiger died. The Maputo Zoo vet, Dr Samuel Bila, reported that the cause of death was chronic pneumonia and kidney faliure. Dr Bila noted that: “the animals were all extremely thin, with their bones showing. The tigers eyes were sunken and he had discharge running from the nose and eyes”.

Elena Son noted: “ when I first saw the animals I was shocked and depressed. They were excessively thin and lethargic. One tiger, Raj, was in appalling condition and the horses were skeletal. We thought we would feed them until someone came for them but as time passed we realised that they had been simply left to there, in their cages to die.”

Elena contacted various animal welfare organisations and at the beginning of August, Tusk Force, were notified and they immediately contacted ADI.

Tusk Force became involved because the situation concerned animals listed in CITES appendices I and II and the enforcement of the provisions of the agreement. Tusk Force and ADI immediately sent cash to feed the animals and set about formulating a rescue plan.

Akef’s Egyptian Circus – The Road to Maputo

In December 1993, the CITES Secretariat were informed that the previous year, Akef’s Egyptian Circus had gone from Egypt to Kenya with two performing chimpanzees and other Appendix I listed animals without presenting any CITES documents. The Kenyan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals urged the authorities to confiscate the animals on welfare grounds. The animals were not confiscated and the circus moved to the United Republic of Tanzania where reportedly it was not allowed to perform.

The circus then appeared in Uganda, where the owner illegally purchased four baby chimpanzees. In November 1993, the Ugandan Wildlife Department confiscated a chimp called Sugar who had been suffering from pneumonia. She was taken to Entebbe Zoo where she received intensive care and survived. The remaining chimps, Samson, Honey and Sweet, were confiscated later that year. The circus was instructed not to leave the country, pending a legal case, but vanished, and reappeared in Kenya.

In March 1994, the CITES Secretariat were informed that that the circus had acquired a further three chimpanzees from a source in Uganda. The Secretariat recommended to the Kenyan authorities that the chimps and a tiger should be confiscated unless Akef produced the relevant documentation. However, any action was impeded by diplomatic protocol.

On May 13th, 1994, the circus clandestinely left Kenya, travelling through Tanzania to Zambia, which it entered without complying with Zambian import procedures or the provisions of CITES.

CITES advised the National Parks and Wildlife Service of Zambia that the Akef Egyptian Circus was travelling with a tiger, chimps and lions, none of which had CITES permits. Akef did not have any documents verifying the legal status of the animals, but as before requested the intervention of the Egyptian Embassy. The Egyptian Ambassador met with the Zambian Minister of Tourism who insisted that the circus comply with Zambia’s national legislation and CITES.

On 23rd June, the Egyptian authorities informed the CITES Secretariat that it had requested the Directorate of the National Circus of the Ministry of Culture to prohibit this circus from travelling abroad.

The repeated failure to have the correct permits and paperwork and that the circus arrives in a country with certain animals and leaves with different ones led to the allegation that it was little more than a front for illegal animal trading.

On 26th June, 1994, the Egyptian authorities confirmed to those in Zambia that the circus owned the following CITES listed animals: six lions, four Bengal tigers and specimens of python. This was verified by the Veterinary Quarantine Department of Egypt. However, as the circus toured Africa, the menagerie regularly changed. Chimpanzees were clearly going through the circus and Akef had attempted to obtain permits to import African elephants into Uganda and to trap wild elephants there. Akef applied to import seven lions and nine African Grey parrots into Zambia. He had left Egypt with six lions and no parrots.

Not surprisingly, when the Zambian authorities inspected the circus, the number of animals Akef said he was importing did not correspond to what was present. On 11th July 1994, the Zambian authorities seized two chimps and one African grey parrot.

In May 1995, a CITES permit was granted for four tigers and four pythons to enter Zimbabwe with the circus. However no export/import permits were issued and no certificate was produced showing the animals’ origin. Upon investigation by Harare SPCA only three pythons were found, two of which were in very poor condition.

S.K. Hargreaves, Director of Veterinary Services, for the Department of Veterinary Services, Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Water Development noted: “I have inspected the conditions under which the lions and tigers are housed by the Akef Egyptian Circus and consider that this is in gross contravention of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. These animals are confined in very small cages with inadequate lighting and very restricted space for exercise. In my opinion this restricted confinement is an act of cruelty to these animals.” The circus was also condemned in a public statement issued by the Council of Veterinary Surgeons of Zimbabwe.

Akef’s Egyptian Circus departed Zimbabwe in November 1995 with four tigers, six lions, four horses, ten dogs and one python. Only two horses arrived in Mozambique, one stallion, and one pregnant mare. A foal was born to the mare in February 1996 whilst in Maputo.

In November 1995 a contract was signed for the circus to perform in Maputo for one month only.

In January 1996, Akef departed Maputo for Egypt, reportedly to arrange passage for staff and animals to Egypt. The animals were left behind with nine staff members.

Akef did not return and steadily money ran out to feed the animals or workers that had been left behind. By June, the animals were starving - one tiger, Raj, died of chronic pneumonia and kidney failure. In August desperate pleas for help reached the London offices of Animal Defenders International.

The Rescue:

Animal defenders International undertook to organise and finance the rescue and temporary homes, with South African volunteers co-ordinating animal permits and the local end of the logistics, while Tusk Force co-ordinated the London end and put pressure on CITES for confiscation orders to be issued for the lions, tigers, and python. In addition, the East / Southern Africa office of TRAFFIC (wildlife trade policing group), in Johannesburg, which had provided the Mozambique government with information on Akef’s background. Also put pressure on action.

ADI arranged for the six lions and three tigers to receive medical attention in quarantine facilities at the hospital of the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) owned by Mrs Lente Roode in the Northern Province of South Africa, under the care of wildlife vet, Dr Peter Rogers.

It was arranged for the python to enter quarantine at the Fitzsimons snake park near Durban and for the dogs to go into care of South Africa’s local SPCA branch to await rehoming. The horses would be rehomed in Mozambique in the care of Mrs Angie Neves at the Sentro Hipico Mabuto’s Riding School.

A storm of telephone calls and faxes commenced between the London office of ADI and Tusk Force the CITES secretariat in Geneva, The Durban office animal rights group, Falcon and the Johannesburg office of TRAFFIC. This enabled Mr Sansao Bonito Mahanhane, the Head of Anti-Poaching, National Directorate of Forests and Wildlife in the Department of Agriculture, to issue a CITES confiscation order, alongside a Mozambigue government welfare confiscation order giving Akef until 16th August to make arrangements for both his staff and animals or the animals would be seized.


To Mozambique

On August 15th, our Rescue Team arrived in Maputo to assess the situation with Elana Son. ADI was represented by Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips (Avis Car Rentals in Durban provided a free car for the Rescue Team for two weeks)

The condition of the animals had been assessed by the Rescue Team’s vet, Dr Peter Rogers, who was briefed by the Maputo Zoo vets, Dr Isobel Osorio and Dr Samuel Bila.

The following morning, Friday 16th August, the Rescue Team and Elena Son attended the offices of Mr Sanso Bonito Mahanjane in Mozambique’s Ministry of Agriculture, to discover what response had been received from Akef and to call for the confiscation order.

Despite Akef’s promises that he would return to solve the problem there was no sign of him. Therefore, Mr Bonito issued the confiscation orders for all of the animals, an handed them into our care, on the understanding that we would remove them and take them to a place of safety.

Mr Bonito and the Rescue Team then went to the circus site where the six remaining circus workers (three had been arrested for alleged theft and visa offences and were in prison) were notified that the animals were under new management.

It was our first sight of the animals. We have seen animals in circuses all over the world and conditions are universally as bad – elephants chained up, lions ans tigers in small cages on the backs of lorries; dull-eyed husks of once magnificent creatures, reduced to pacing their way through the monotonous hours of caged life in hopeless despair. But the conditions these animals were in were particularly distressing. The cages were in the region of six foot long by three foot wide – a lion or tiger could barely stretch out. The first lion we saw had bedsores on his flanks. It is truly horrific that most of these animals had been kept in these cages for several years (some more than ten); meals and nights were spent in a travelling container.

The three horses were pitifully thin; the mare was in a particularly bad state, and her milk had dried up. In two other small cages were the dogs; extremely friendly and despite everything looked in reasonable health.

In a cage at the end of a solid metal container was the enormous African Python, curled up beneath her light, asleep. She had no name and was later called Murphy. The circus had arrived in Zimbabwe, their last stop before Mozambique, with four pythons – Murphy was the only one to make it to Mozambique.

Mrs Son had been informed that there had been threats to kill the animals or anyone helping them, and the Rescue Team were therefore delighted when in a tremendously generous gesture, Maputo-based Bassopa Security Company Limuted kindly offered guards to protect the animals and ensure the safety of anyone assisting the rescue bid.

Preparing the Move

A variety of methods of transporting the animals were discussed, the most difficult problem being the delicate health of the starved lions an tigers and their vulnerability to the effect on anaesthetics whilst in such condition. It was decided that the safest method of transporting the animals was in the container they had lived and travelled in all their lives on the back of a flatbed lorry. Enquires and negotiations commenced with local businesses, for help with local transportation. Johnannesburg haulage firm Scotts Transport kindly offered the use of a flatbed lorry and driver free of charge. A local construction company kindly arranged the free use of a specialised crane and drivers to load the animals’ container on to the lorry.

A disconcerting new development was the arrival of a local nightclub owner Mr Alex Barbosa, who claimed that he was the official sponsor of Akef’s circus and Akef owed him money for the rent of the land, and for equipment. The Rescue Team now found themselves negotiating with Mr Barbosa, who had initiated court proceedings to confiscate all of Akef’s property for non-payment of debts. This included the animals and their containers!

Moving the animals

Over the weekend Mrs Angie Neves and her helpers moved the three horses to the sanctuary at Sentro Hipico. The horses had been kept in a tiny enclosure for months and moved stiffly and nervously; and the mare’s bones protruded through her skin as she walked.

At the Sentro Hipico, they were fed, washed, medication was planned and put into new stables. As the three horses Butterscotch, Amber and Tigga, tucked into food and rested on fresh hay, the Rescue Team, knew that at least three of the animals were safe.

South African import paperwork meant the earliest date for the move would be Thursday 22nd August 1996, ADI’s London office had to make arrangements for appropriate Public Liability Insurance; all of the animal health certificates from the Maputo vets had to be in place.

By Wednesday we had our papers, after a final meeting with the Sansao Bonitio at the Ministry of Agriculture. A lorry had been on standby for the past two days awaiting the green light.

The Rescue Team briefed the circus workers to be ready for an early start.

At 5:30am, on Thursday morning the lions and tigers were all moved in to their outdoor cages. The container was cleaned and prepared for the journey with sawdust and the cats put back. The outdoor cages were dismantled as the sun rose over the circus site, the quiet morning punctuated by the clank of the cages being taken down for the last time. After living in these tiny outdoor runs for between 6 and 13 years of their lives the cats were being loaded for the most important journey of their lives; emotions were running high.

The huge African python, measuring some eight feet long, was removed from her cage and placed in a box for transportation which was then sealed with a mosquito net. Just 5 dogs were loaded into their normal travelling cage. Two of the dogs had been removed by the Barbosa’s as pets for their own children.

By 7am, the container was packed up and ready to go. The crane arrived and the container of lions, tigers, dogs, and a python was slowly winched up and lowered onto the back of the lorry. The lions and tigers paced a little as the container moved through the air, but all of the animals remained calm and just a little inquisitive, this was all just like a normal moving day for them. But this time, their final destination was to be very different.

The Journey to Freedom

At 8:30am on Thursday 22nd August, the huge transporter carrying the animals rumbled out of the circus site into central Maputo. The atmosphere in the support car was tense; we had been warned to leave the country immediately; Akef’s family were issuing dire warnings from jail, and Akef himself had apparently threatened to return and stop the rescue. A convoy of Rescue Team support vehicles drove in front and behind the transporter as it travelled the breadth of Mozambique across to the South Africa border post at Komatipoort. Here, all our negotiations were put to the test as the Mozambique and South African authorities checked that all of the documentation was in order.

There had been days of anticipation at both border posts; ensuring us an excited welcome. Even the South African Immigration Officer stamping our passports offered to home al the dogs! With a great sense of relief the Rescue Team convoy headed into South Africa, accompanied by the State Vet and other officials.

At Nelspruit in South Africa we halted for watering, Dr Peter Rogers joined us, and made a visual check of the cats. The dogs were handed to the Nelspruit SPCA for temporary quarantine and the lions and tigers were sprayed with insecticide. And then it was back on the road for this epic journey to freedom.

At dusk we reached the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) where there was as excited welcoming committee. The lions and tigers were all given water and then settled in for the night - they would have to wait for food until after their anaesthetic the following day.

Starting a new life

Friday 23rd August was the last day that the lions and tigers would wake up inside their bleak beastwagon. The veterinary team began work at 5:30am.

Dr Rogers darted the first male lion through the bars of the cage; the animal roared, seemingly more out of irritation than distress, and after a few minutes became unsteady on his feet finally sinking into semi-consciousness. Dr Rogers checked the lion’s level of consciousness and a mattress stretcher was used to carry the sleeping cat to the operating theatre. There following a battery of health checks, blood samples were taken, and finally the animal was carried to his quarantine cage and tucked down cosily into a straw bed to sleep it off.

This process was repeated a further eight times, as the team worked into the afternoon.

For a week, we had seen these magnificent animals confined in their tiny runs and now we were literally carrying them to freedom. Every waking hour for over a week had centred on rescuing these animals, often not knowing if our attempts to save them would be thwarted and now they were safe at last.

All of the animals were anaemic, with very low blood pressure. Our fears of anaesthetising them for the journey had been well founded; one tiger had difficulty coming round and had to be placed on a drip during the night. However by the morning they were all well, and tucking into a hearty meal in their new enclosures. It had been less than a week since the rescue team had arrived in Mozambique. In that time, we had secured a confiscation order, taken control of the animals, organised their feeding and all the necessary health checks and import documentation, the horses had been relocated and the remaining animals had been moved from one country to another. It was a truly remarkable achievement by all of those involved.


The Future

The horses are gradually recovering at the Sentro Hipico in Maputo, whilst the dogs are currently in quarantine with the Durban SPCA but have been secured homes locally. Murphy the python has remained at Fitzsimons Snake Park where she began her retirement.

As we go to the press, the search to home the lions and tigers is progressing well, with several offers of places on sanctuaries and reserves which will be carefully vetted. Genetic tests are being conducted to assess suitability for species conservation / wild release breeding programmes. Mrs Lente Roode, who runs Hoedspruit endangered species centre has said that the lions and tigers can stay there until suitable facilities can be found.

These animals have had a terrible life enduring almost unimaginable deprivation as they have been shunted around Africa. We are committed to ensuring that they live out their lives with dignity, comfort and as much freedom as possible.

This rescue has been very important for the future of the CITES administration. If CITES is going to work, it has to be shown to have teeth, and the ability to use them in a demonstration of assertiveness and authority when companies or individuals fly in the face of the will of the international community. El Sayed Hussein Akef’s trafficking of animals across the African continent demonstrates how much there is still to be done and how implementation of internal regulations is the responsibility of all of us – from members of the public like Elena Son, to animal welfare and conservation groups who must be willing to do what it takes to support CITES. Laws, which cannot bite transgressors, are not worth having.

So began the search to home nine very large cats. We had to make absolutely sure that the animals would be going to people who could actually look after them as well as ensure that they did not fall into the hands of hunters. Therefore for the adoption process, ADI devised a detailed application form, requiring details of all licences held (including hunting etc.), financial details (ability to support the animals indefinitely), insurance, ethical background and so on. Applicants also had to provide supporting documentation, sign a declaration of intent, and a responsibility to ADI. All completed applicants were processed by ADI’s lawyers in Johannesburg and then reviewed by a specially-convened panel.

These animals had been kept in tiny enclosures (approx. 1m by 2m) or in a beastwagon for years – some as many as thirteen. They were tame, imprinted on people, and dependent on them, so they could not be released into the wild. It was therefore the aim of ADI to find the best homes possible for the animals to give them a peaceful retirement. Gradually, the homes were short listed and potential locations visited.

As the animals regained their strength in hospital, it was discovered that three of the lions were from the extinct-listed Barbary sub-species. With this news it was decided that these lions would remain in the care of Mrs Lente Roode and Dr Peter Rogers at the HESC with a view to allowing them to breed and eventually for progeny to be released in to the wild.

The three other male lions would be moved to the neighbouring Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. This remarkable place, run by Brian Jones, is a sanctuary for many unwanted or injured animals including a lion and a leopard. It specialised in caring for birds of prey and returning them to the wild.

On one visit Brian had just brought back from the brink of death two vultures who had eaten from a carcass deliberately poisoned by a farmer to kill hyenas. We were lucky enough to see the vultures soar away after their treatment.

It was not possible to return the tigers to wild or semi-wild homes in India due to their unknown background, so we set about finding the best available in South Africa. We settled on Pumula Game Lodge (that subsequently became Milimani) in KwaZulu Natal. This game park had been taken over by Schalk van der Meurve who had promptly banned hunting. Milimani built cages and enclosures to ADI’s specifications.

So in November, ADI’s team went to South Africa for the rare privilege of helping these animals start a new life.

All of the males, with the exception of the Barbary were given vasectomies to prevent them breeding, due to shortage of suitable homes or wild habitat. They were given vasectomies rather than castration because this has less behavioural and physical impact on the lions for example castrated lions loose their manes.

In the warm early South African evening, still unconscious from the operation the lions were stretchered onto pick up trucks. Now well fed, they were noticeably heavier than when they first arrived from Mozambique. With at least one person constantly monitoring their breathing they were driven to Moholoholo, where they were unloaded into small hospital / sleeping quarters. The last lion was finally unloaded in darkness by torchlight. We arrived at Moholoholo the next morning to discover the lions awake seemingly unperturbed by their surroundings or the operation.

It is not possible to adequately describe the sensation of what followed. Everyone in the ADI team has been involved in our anti-circus campaign. All had seen first hand the misery of circus animals cooped up in metal containers and beastwagons. This was to be one of the moments we hardly dare dream of.

We waited with baited breath as the doors to the sleeping quarters were winched up and each lion took his first hesitant steps into the real world. At first returning to the sanctuary of his sleeping quarters, but soon venturing deeper and deeper into his new home. At first exploring and then settling down, concealed in the dappled shade of a bush.

The lion enclosures at Moholoholo are approximately half a hectare with trees and natural vegetation. There is plenty of cover so the animals can have as much privacy as they desire.

That night the Barbary lions were moved from the hospital facilities at HESC – the moves were at night so that it was as cool as possible for the animals. At dusk they were darted and unconscious, loaded onto stretchers and driven to their enclosure. This is a vast 12 hectares of bush with a water hole (this had even been drained for the release in case one of the lionesses stumbled into it whilst semi-conscious) and various water stations.

As torches flashed around, the lionesses were laid in the small bush and Akef was put in a small cage so that he could be introduced to them under supervision. They were given final medical checks and more hair samples were taken.

The following morning as the ADI team drove to the enclosure they were greeted with the wonderful sight of one of the lionesses stretched across a dirt road basking in the sun. memories flooded back of her in her tiny cage in Maputo; racing up and down, digging at the ground, desperate to escape.

We drove on into the enclosure where Akef was still in his cage with the other lioness lying just outside. The cage door was released and he strode out proudly surveying his surroundings and inspecting the vehicles. In an interesting role reversal the lion who had spent his life in a cage on the back of a lorry, now strode around the vehicles looking at the humans inside. Finally he picked up a piece of meat and joined the lioness for a hearty breakfast.

One night in January 1997, the tigers were moved to Milimani game sanctuary in Northern KwaZulu-Natal. The tigers were anaesthetised and loaded into straw filled crates on trailers. At 11pm the convoy set out in a fierce thunderstorm, the sky lighting up as lightening lacked across it. We arrived in Milimani at 8am in the morning, having driven all night with regular stops to check the animals.

The rescue, release and Barbary story received worldwide coverage. We were featured numerous times by South Africa’s SABC and internationally amongst others Sky. We also appeared on BBC1’s Newsround, Channel 4’s Fortean TV and have received extensive coverage in Italy. The story also featured in the Sunday Express, the Observer, The Sunday Telegraph and BBC Wildlife. Importantly, this was more than just a rescue. It highlighted the way animals are moved and cared for in circuses. It has shown the need for stronger international protection for animals and it has highlighted positive conservation.

© Animal Defenders International 2019