It was an emotional day. No-one had slept in 48 hours. The lions’ journey had started days before, in far-off Bucaramanga in Colombia and Lima in Peru, via Brazil and OR Tambo, where they’d been loaded onto yet more trucks to bump off to the Waterberg in Limpopo.

The uneasy predators had been confined to crates all too close to the size of their cramped circus cages although lions that knew each other had been placed side by side for comfort.

When Iron, a relatively tough-looking cat with just a few minor scars, eventually took his first step on to African soil, the world’s media clicked and clapped. He was the first lion ‘freed’, 32 more followed, some anxious, some annoyed. The lions were semi-free at last, safe in pens full of grass and trees; lumps in the throat were to be expected. But it was when the cameras packed up and left that the story really began.

“We weren’t aware of just how damaged these cats are says Savannah Heuser, the 20yearold founder of Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Vaalwater, Limpopo. Over the phone, her voice is firm and unsentimental; she has had three tumultuous months to get to know the 33 lions saved from South American circuses, and has few illusions. It’s a tough job.

“You do your research, and you think you know what’s.coming, and then you see the cats and this is after their transformation.” The lions had already spent many months being fed up and cared for by the group that rescued them, Animal Defenders International (ADI). “There are things that are irreversible. That’s not the cool part.”

Heartbreaking

ADI has described the conditions in South American circuses as “terrible, deprived and disgusting”, the site of “some of the most heartbreaking scenes that we have ever witnessed”. The lions are battered, physically and emotionally. Most are declawed, many have broken teeth, Ricardo has lost an eye. Poor Joseph is nearly blind and doesn’t have a great sense of smell, so he has trouble finding his food.

“They lived in terrible circumstances:’ Savannah explains. “They urinated, fed, and slept in the same small cages. The cats developed bad arthritis, and with malnutrition, things got a lot worse. Some came in very skinny and scrawny some were only fed chicken feet for their whole lives. Lots of the cats developed bad eyesight problems cataracts, due to the malnutrition.”

Compared to zoo lions sent to Emoya from the Netherlands, the South American St cats are small, up to half the size. They’re not pretty: they have scars from rubbing against bars or beatings. “You can see the damage; that they’ve been through a lot,” Savannah says.

Which is why Emoya offers refuge. It’s remote: a wild, thorny bushveld landscape with deep red earth and poor cellphone reception. It’s on a 5 000-hectare private cattle and sheep farm called Bahati, once owned by Savannah’s father, who died when she was three months old. The farm was then passed to her mother Minunette and herself. And Minunette is one of those mothers who enables her daughter’s dreams.

Starting Emoya

On a holiday in Zambia in 2010, Savannah went on a lion walk, where her desire to work with big cats crystallized. Then she read about Masrya, a lioness rescued from an Egyptian cage, and decided to act. With her ‘selfless’ mom, she applied for the necessary permits to establish a sanctuary.

Emoya opened when Savannah was 16, and soon Masrya was sent to live there by a Dutch NGO called Stichting Leeuw. Before the 33 arrived, Savannah had taken on eight lions. Right now there are 40 and two tigers.

But back to the South Americans. They have been settling into Phase 1 ‘bonding’ enclosures: nine family pens within a main enclosure, arranged like slices of pizza and 100m to 200m apart. The closest pen to the Heuser home is about 5m from the garden’s edge their roars used to wake Savannah, but she’s used to them now. “Each enclosure has a hay mattress for sleeping on, most have a massive 500kg hay bale for climbing, and then we give them toys and things which change every day. And natural bush, trees and anthills:’ says Savannah. Volunteers.come up with new ways to entertain the cats, from tyre swings to bags filled with scented material: cinnamon, mint, catnip. Joseph loves his tent, a mobile cave.

The new regime is working. The females are far more active and all are building up muscle. Savannah says personalities and set roles have changed: some cats that were submissive are now dominant. Some have been matched to new family groups. “We had a family of seven and we’ve recently moved three of the sub-adult boys out into their own enclosure — they were starting to challenge the father and they all wanted space, basically:’ Savannah explains.

This is the Huaral family, named after the town in Peru where they were rescued. Leo is the patriarch, a charming, near toothless elder with a faraway gaze and a penchant for popping soccer balls. When he was first rescued with his sons Coco, Chino and Rolex, ADI was forced to leave without the females — but went back for Muneca and daughters Africa and Kiara later.

Since his sons moved out, Savannah says, “Leo’s changed.completely… he’s older, but he runs like a bunny through his enclosure, and he’s so happy. If he looks around, there’s his hay bale and there are his girls. He’s so content.”

For Savannah, caring for the lions is bittersweet. Seeing them enjoy the trees and grass is a delight, and yet this is something to which “they should be oblivious”, she points out. There’s also been tragedy: just over a month after their arrival, four of the lions fell ill with a botulism toxin — called food poisoning in humans — and Rapunzel and Kala died despite all efforts to save them.

“I think lions falling ill [due to ingesting spores produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum] was inevitable says Dr Peter Caldwell, one of the world’s top carnivore vets. Caldwell is official vet to the lions and has seen them start a vaccination programme to protect them from some prevalent dangerous viruses. But there is no effective carnivore vaccine for botulinum.

He describes the Peruvian and Colombian lions as ‘virgin’ lions: they have no immunity to naturally occurring toxins. Carnivores born in South Africa are resistant (they’re always eating meat that has inevitably been left out in hot conditions). For the South American cats, old bones can be dangerous. “These lions have never really been exposed to sand and grass and carrion and all sorts of things they were in a controlled environment, cages that were disinfected all the time… Something that you and I would possibly not even blink an eye at, they would get sick with.”

The lions don’t.come with good genes either: many are inbred, and lack the antibodies being raised by their mothers would have provided. But they were taken away as cubs. As things are, they’re having to fight off infections from mere scratches on a paw, and they’re super vulnerable to gastroenteritis.

The four lions that fell ill must have fed on a carcass containing the toxin, which affects the neuromuscular system to cause flaccid paralysis, Caldwell explains. He has successfully treated local lions for the illness before, which usually first shows up in large muscles like the rump. But in the case of the lionesses, “I’ve never seen a toxin spread to the vital cardiac and respiratory muscles,” says Caldwell. “Even with all the ICU care we gave, they just didn’t respond. One started lifting her head and we thought okay, we’re seeing some progress, and then she just collapsed she went into cardiorespiratory arrest. We did CPR on her for about 45 minutes but there was no coming back.”

“It was a very difficult situation and still is for us, and for the [ADI] people who’d worked with the cats,” says Savannah. “You would have wanted them  to have a few years [free] at least, not a few weeks. And you’re not supposed to have a favourite, but with cats, well sometimes there’s an animal you click with. For me that was Kala. Like all the other cats, she had absolutely no reason to trust us. You’d think she’d carry anger. And she didn’t. She was just living in the moment every day, she was grateful for everything she had, and it was something so selfless…”

Strict measures are now in place to be sure Emoya knows the source of all meat given to the cats and bones are cleared from cages. “I think we’re over the worst,” says Savannah. “Everything is being double-checked and the double checks are being double-checked.”

The lions’ inherent genetic weakness is also part of the reason why the females will be spayed. “These are cats you don’t want to breed with,” Savannah explains. “They are already interbred, they are not your best specimens and anyway, there are enough cats in captivity!” Sterilising the females, rather than the males, will help protect them from uterine and ovarian cancers, which they would be susceptible to from constant mating if they were not sterilised. With no females.coming on heat, males would also be less aggressive, allowing for bigger family groups. This way is seen as kinder for all.

Canned lions

In South Africa, a no-breeding policy is  extra important considering the appalling ‘blood lions’ or canned hunting industry. According to the Blood Lions website, there are up to 7 000 captive lions in South Africa, bred purely to end up at the wrong end of a hunter’s gun (or crossbow). Some are released from pens just days or hours before the ‘hunt’. When younger, many are used to earn money for their owners via ‘cub petting’ and lion walks.

Claims that these lions are released later in life are, almost invariably, lies. As the Blood Lions website states, “captive lions are tame, human-imprinted and genetically contaminated… [to date] there has not been a successful lion reintroduction programme using captive bred and reared lions into any free-ranging park or reserve in South Africa. Lion conservationists warn that captive bred lions are not suitable for reintroduction programmes.” The NSPCA is as unequivocal. “There is absolutely no ethical or conservation-based reason to breed large predators in captivity in South Africa:’ according to its Wildlife Protection Unit. “These animals are never returned to the wild as they are imprinted and would never survive, or they are inbred and their genetics are diluted.”

Ethical Position

ll this meant Emoya had important boxes to tick before ADI chose it as the lions’ final home. Jan Creamer, ADI president, personally visited the sanctuary to “talk through their ethical position”. The policies Creamer was looking for were: no breeding; no human handling or contact; no public exhibition or entertainment (i.e. like zoos); minimal human interference and contact; large natural enclosures “where they can, if they want, hide away from human eyes; and the.company of their own kind”.

“We want them to be able to enjoy, as close as possible, the life that was stolen from them,” says Creamer. The public can make appointments to visit Emoya, because education about circus abuse is valuable and Savannah wants people to see the animals back where they belong. But it’s only on specific days, with specific cats the 31 are still not settled enough. There’s no interaction or charge: even the staff never enter the enclosures and stay two metres away from the fences.

“We believe in no interaction because basically it’s not a relationship that should exist in the first place Savannah says. “The lions don’t need love from us; they need love from animals of the same sort. Mostly when people have interactions with these animals, it’s to glorify themselves that they are able to go in with these massive animals and they have control over them.”

She also thinks contact gives the wrong impression: “Then people think any person can go pet a cub for an hour. They don’t think, what will happen to the cub in six months’ time? And they also don’t think that a lot of these cub-petting places are involved in canned hunting.Interaction does not benefit the animal. So I don’t agree with petting facilities and I don’t agree with walking with lions.”

Adapting well

Right now, Savannah and Minunette are concentrating on settling the new cats in; a 24 hour dedicated lion care team is also being established.Caldwell says 80 to 90% are adapting really well: “Some still get a fright from wind blowing a branch, but in general their condition has picked up nicely… their skin and hair is improving.” Emoya is hoping to release nine prides into much larger Phase II enclosures, from one to three hectares in size, by year-end.

A lot depends on finances: while ADI pays for all food and vet care for the 31, Emoya relies heavily on donations for expansion. Kind businesses have provided building materials and fencing and transport at reduced rates or for free so far, but it’s a never-ending task.

 Savannah doesn’t rule out taking in more lions in the future. “The sad thing is you can’t take all of them:’ she says. She means it, too, you can tell. “Like all teenagers, well, you really want to make a difference in the world? You want to be part of the team that changes it all? At some point, it stops just being about changing the world, but also about changing an individual’s life.., and these cats, the ones that are not as beautiful, they’re not less special. They have personalities that are just as amazing and they need to be given a chance.

“And it’s for life. Some of these cats will live for 20 years. It’s never a burden, but it is a lot of work. I think people look at it as a fairy tale and it’s not. It’s about reality. Real lions that have to be taken care of.”