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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Two lions from Mideast war zones reach South African refuge

A 4-year-old lion named Simba, who was rescued from Syria by the animal rights group Four Paws, is released into an enclosure at the Lionsrock Lodge and Big Cat Sanctuary in Bethlehem, South Africa, Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. (Themba Hadebe / Associated Press)
By Christopher Torchia Associated Press

LIONSROCK BIG CAT SANCTUARY, South Africa – Two lions rescued from neglected zoos in war zones in Iraq and Syria arrived in South Africa on Monday to live at a sanctuary with other animals that survived harsh conditions in captivity elsewhere in the world.

The male lions were transported in metal crates on a Qatar Airways flight after leaving an animal refuge in Jordan on Sunday. They were loaded onto vehicles for a drive of several hours to their new home at the Lionsrock facility near the town of Bethlehem. The lions emerged into separate grassy enclosures, and other lions behind nearby fences let out deep-throated growls and moans.

“They are already saying, ‘Hello,’” said Hildegard Pirker, head of the animal welfare department at Lionsrock. As one of the new arrivals bounded around his new home, Pirker said: “You’re in Africa, finally.”

Born in captivity, the lions had never been on the continent. They were emaciated and dehydrated after the international animal welfare group Four Paws extracted them from a zoo in eastern Mosul in Iraq and an amusement park near Aleppo in Syria. The two cities have experienced some of the worst fighting that has hit both countries in recent years, killing large numbers of people and leaving neighborhoods in ruins.

Most of the 40 animals at the Mosul zoo died of starvation or were killed in bombings, while some escaped from their enclosures, according to Four Paws. The group’s members reached the location a year ago and evacuated the only two animals they found, a bear and the roughly 4-year-old lion named Simba.

The other lion, 2-year-old Saeed, was rescued in July along with 12 other animals from Syria’s Magic World amusement park. The animals reached Jordan after staying for two weeks in Turkey, whose government assisted with the evacuation.

Both lions were traumatized when they arrived at the Al-Ma’wa Animal Sanctuary in Jordan, Four Paws said. Since then, they have received medical care, including vasectomies and dental work, and have gained weight on a steady diet that included lamb meat treats.

The lions can expect similar treatment at Lionsrock, whose 80 lions came from a German circus and zoos in France, Romania, Congo and elsewhere. Some are from South African captive-bred lion operations that often earmark the predators for “trophy” killings by customers.

Some of the captive-bred residents of Lionsrock have deformities from inbreeding and none can be released into the wild, said Fiona Miles, director of Four Paws’ South Africa operation.

She said a key goal is to raise awareness about the conditions of lions and other animals in captivity around the world.

Conservationists point to broader challenges facing Africa’s wild lions, whose population has plummeted. Problems include shrinking habitats and poaching, in which lions get trapped in snares laid down indiscriminately.

Another concern is demand in some Asian countries for lion bones used in traditional medicine. Currently, South Africa allows the legal, annual export of bones from hundreds of captive-bred lions to China and Southeast Asia.

There are nearly 2,900 wild lions and about 7,000 captive lions in South Africa, according to the government.

Security at Lionsrock is tight, a necessary precaution in a country where poaching is a frequent threat. Last year, poachers broke into another wildlife sanctuary in South Africa, killing two of its big cats.