Until recently, home for Gina the tiger and her five lion companions were tiny cages in Ukraine zoos, filled with their own excrement and rotting leftover food.
The weather was appalling too, often reaching -30 degrees Celsius in winters characterised by brutal winds and heavy snowstorms. Their paws had never touched grass, they had never smelled freedom or known what it was like to stretch their limbs in full-throttle runs.
But the animals’ lives of captivity and deprivation are a thing of the past now, thanks to an arduous 10-month rescue mission spearheaded by South African Lionel de Lange and his Ukrainian wife, Anya Masiach, directors of the Warriors of Wildlife (WoW) organisation that rescues, relocates and cares for abused animals.
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Now home for Gina and the lions – brother and sister Aslan and Jen, Hercules, Khaya and Cher – is the Simbonga Game Reserve and Sanctuary near Gqeberha. Every day they get to sniff the fresh breeze, tuck into regular meals and explore their new territory – each animal has 2 500 square metres all to themselves.
Lionel and Anya were alerted to the animals’ plight in April last year and immediately set about trying to secure permits to rescue them.
The initial plan was to save eight cats but, because of a delay in permits, two lions died before the rescue mission could be completed. The WoW team had to race against time to avoid the other animals suffering a similar fate.
“We didn’t know how long the cats would have,” Anya tells YOU. “We knew we had to work fast. The cats were kept in zoos in separate locations so we decided we had to find a way to take them all at once.”
Once the permits were secured, Anya and Lionel, who divide their time between SA and Ukraine, then set about removing the animals and preparing them for the trip to South Africa.
A special cargo plane, sponsored by courier company DHL, was arranged to transport the animals from Kyiv to Johannesburg. A vet accompanied the cats along with Lionel and Anya and other members of the WoW team.
And finally, after a three-day flight that transited via Istanbul, the animals arrived in South Africa in the full force of summer. They landed at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg before they were loaded onto trucks for a 17-hour road trip to Gqeberha.
At first the animals were tentative and suspicious at Simbonga – Gina in particular. It took her a full four days before she felt it was safe to explore the world beyond her cage. The lions were edgy too at first but left their cages a day after arriving.
Now, several weeks later, the new arrivals are thriving at Simbonga. “It’s a whole new world for them,” says Keegan Smith, who runs the game reserve and sanctuary. “They were understandably scared at first but they started enjoying themselves after a few days, roaming about the place.
“Their coats were shinier and they definitely looked healthier.”
Over the years WoW has rescued and relocated animals around the world, including big cats and bears.
“That’s what we do,” Lionel says. “We rescue animals that are in really bad condition, animals that are abused, used in circuses and neglected. I grew up around animals and have always been sensitive towards them. I can’t bear to see an animal abused or neglected.”
He adds he and his team wouldn’t be able to do their job if it weren't for the sponsors who help fund their mercy missions, which can cost millions of rands.
“We aren’t funded by government and we aren’t exactly rich ourselves. The greatest credit has to go to the people who support what we do.”