Two former circus lions were given a new lease on life on Monday when they were released into the Shamwari Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth.
According to the Born Free Foundation, the big cats, Jora and Black, journeyed more than 16 500km following their rescue in Bulgaria until they eventually reached South Africa.
They arrived at an overnight camp on Sunday, before they were released into “their large, naturalistic accommodation” at the reserve.
The pair, both eight, started their journey from a halfway house in central Bulgaria to Bourgas airport on the Black Sea coast on Friday September 25, the foundation said in a statement.
From there they were flown by Thomson Airways to London’s Gatwick Airport where actress and Born Free co-founder, Virginia McKenna OBE, was waiting to give them a warm welcome.
McKenna said the foundation has successfully moved many captive animals but each occasion was unique in its own way.
“I hope their story will inspire people to treat wild animals with respect and understanding, and never subject them to … inappropriate existences in captivity.
“Jora and Black are flagship animals for the ending of all wild animals in circuses. Let all countries follow Bulgaria’s example.”
Jora and Black then travelled by road in quarantined vehicles to London’s Heathrow Airport where they were prepared for the longest leg of their journey – the flight to OR Tambo International Airport.
After landing in Johannesburg, Jora and Black were transported by road to Shamwari.
Shamwari group head of wildlife Dr Johan Joubert, who is a veterinarian, and Born Free’s big cat specialist Tony Wiles travelled with the pair throughout their journey, conducting regular health checks.
“Taken in as small cubs, the brothers were originally part of a circus act touring Eastern Europe and Turkey,” the foundation said.
“Following the Bulgarian government’s much-welcomed ban on the use of wild mammals in circuses, the lions were left to languish in a stifling beast wagon since the summer of 2014, until the owners agreed to re-home them with Born Free.”