Louga - one of the Lions Rescued from French Circus and now Re-Homed at Shamwari's Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa. Copyright: Tonga Terre d'Accueil

After nearly four years and eight thousand miles, Born Free’s ‘Lions of Lockdown’ have finally reached African soil as they make it to the safety and sanctuary of their forever home.

France circus lions rescued in South Africa
Copyright: Brad Louwrens

Born Free founder Virginia McKenna OBE, said: “I am overjoyed our ‘Lions of Lockdown’ are now at Shamwari, loved and respected as they deserve. Grass beneath their feet, sun on their backs and the shade of trees where they can rest. At last. That is the Born Free way.”

Yesterday morning, 10 February 2022, the four adult lions, who were all born in captivity, finally took their first, precious steps on African soil. The lions had previously been housed in cramped, rusty trailers, and compelled to perform in a travelling circus for most of their lives.

lions french circus south africa 2
Finally in South Africa, the lions spent a lifetime in circuses and cramped captivity. Photos: Born Free

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 so many of us affected by the impact of the pandemic, these magnificent ‘Lions of Lockdown’ had been forced to wait for the journey that will transform their lives.

Their great adventure began at their rescue centre, Tonga Terre d’Accueil near Lyon, France, on Tuesday morning, 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.

France circus lions rescued in South Africa
Angela Copyright: Tonga Terre d’Accueil

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 yesterday morning, was opened on 29th March 1997 by Born Free’s Virginia McKenna OBE, and Shamwari’s original owner, Adrian Gardiner.

France circus lions rescued in South Africa french circus

The logistical feat of re-locating four adult lions cannot be underestimated, said the team. Many hundreds of hours of planning, evaluation and care undertaken by Born Free’s experts and specialists, together with their 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, has 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,” said Born Free.

“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 by visiting https://www.bornfree.org.uk/lions-of-lockdown

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.

Year of the Lion

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’ve wanted to achieve for lions in captivity.

Will Travers OBE, Executive President & Co-Founder, Born Free said: “Born Free has always championed the importance of every individual animal. Angela, Bellone, Saïda and Louga, like Elsa, Christian, Cecil who went before them, are all individual lions who touch our hearts in different ways. That is why saving lions from the worst forms of human exploitation – in circuses, zoos, as private ‘pets’, or from canned hunting facilities – is so important to us all at the Born Free family. It defines who we are. We had to help the beautiful Lions of Lockdown and give them a life worth living. And our efforts have never been more important than now. In memory of my late father, Bill, a lion of a man, 2022 is Born Free’s Year of the Lion. It is our chance to help individual lions in need and protect a species in frightening decline in the wild. Giving the Lions of Lockdown a new beginning in South Africa shows us all that it is possible to create a forever future for these magnificent creatures. So, let’s all roar for lions!”

Dr Andrea Donaldson, Acting Head of Rescue & Care, Born Free added “After their awful start in life, it is amazing to know that Louga, Bellone, Saida and Angela will now wake up every morning with the warmth of the African sun on their face, surrounded by the sights and sounds of bushland – they are finally home! … Everyone at Born Free is extremely grateful to Qatar Airways who looked after our ‘Lions of Lockdown’ in flight on their journey to South Africa. Louga, Bellone, Saïda and Angela can sadly never be released in to the wild, but at Born Free’s Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari they will have the next best thing.”

Catherine Gillson, Born Free Manager, Shamwari Private Game Reserve concluded: “We are delighted that Louga, Saida, Angela and Bellone are safely with us at Shamwari… Their re-homing to our Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari will allow them to get as close to experiencing the life they were denied for so many years! The sights, sounds and scents of their fellow rescued big cats will heighten their senses immediately as they begin to acclimatise to their new lives. They are now in their forever home in Africa.”

More information on Born Free’s ‘Lions of Lockdown’ – including profiles of each lion and links to donate towards their lifetime care can be found here LIONS OF LOCKDOWN.