Amanda Marais was Emoya’s official photographer, documenting the arrival of the 33 lions at OR Tambo International Airport and the release at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary. Here is her story and pictures of the incredible events that unfolded on 30 April and 1 May 2016 as the first of the 33 rescue lions was released onto African soil.
As the sun began to set and the sky turned different shades of purple and pink, we watched with great excitement as the Boeing carrying our precious cargo of 33 ex-circus lions landed on the tarmac at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
Along with the Emoya and ADI team, hordes of journalists, news crews and press from around the world had gathered in anticipation of the arrival of the 33 lions from ADI’ s rescue facility in Peru.
The crates were slowly and carefully off-loaded and brought through to the cargo area where the state veterinarian surgeon was waiting. She gave the cats a once-over and, after reams of paperwork was checked, the thumbs-up was finally given.
The first lion out was sweet, gentle Joseph. He roared and made the announcement of his arrival loud and clear. The rest of the cats followed, there was a chorus of roars. I am sure there was not a single person there that was not completely astounded by the scene before them. The noise was deafening and Africa’s lions were finally home!
Savannah Heuser, co-founder of Emoya, along with Tim Phillips and Jan Creamer, the founders of Animal Defenders International, started the long process of loading all the cats in a specific order onto Ibubesi’s enormous superlink trucks. Great care had been taken to keep family and loved ones next to each other during the flight and the same care was being taken for the road journey home.
The loading took five hours and the lions roared on and off as if to say, “Lets get this show on the road already”. Just after midnight, the trucks finally departed for Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary.
The road trip took longer than expected, with several water stops along the way. The 40km dirt road on the last stretch to Emoya was very bumpy so the trucks dropped their speed to 12km per hour. The priorities were keeping dust to a minimum and making sure the straps did not come loose.
At 6:30am on Sunday 1 May 2016, as the sun started to glow, the world’s media, camped outside the main gate at Emoya, saw what they’d been waiting for: the arrival of the trucks carrying the 33.
The lions had gone quiet and the media were in a frenzy. Tim and Jan had been traveling for over 60 hours. The Emoya team had not slept in 48 hours. Through the crates, the lions could smell the fresh air, they could just see freedom and they sensed that something big was about to happen.
A brand new day at the sanctuary had begun.
A crane was assembled to lift the crates off the trucks and onto the ground. One by one, the first nine crates were off-loaded. These were the “Colombian 9” that had travelled from Colombia to the ADI facility in Peru and finally to South Africa. They had been in their crates for four days and seemed keen to get out and explore. Nothing fazed them but the media were asked to not shine any light onto the cats and give them some space.
The Colombians had spent two years in quarantine. They lived in a facility with concrete floors and had no contact with one another. ADI had appointed a dedicated caregiver, Yani Mateus, who spent two years of her life with these cats. She was with the lions every day, making sure they got the best care possible under those conditions.
Yani was at Emoya to greet her Colombian 9 and as the cats were off-loaded, still in their crates, she and Jan checked them carefully, giving them water and words of reassurance. A bulldozer then lifted each of the nine crates and placed them at the individual enclosures.
The time had finally arrived to release the lions.
There was an energy in the air that the cats could sense, there was excitement and anticipation. Iron would be the first of the 33 lions released onto African home soil.
Gigi Glendinning, founder of 22reasons.org and ADI volunteer, climbed on top of Iron’s crate and slowly lifted the crate door. Iron just stood there, looking, wondering, thinking. He stuck his head out and tentatively took his first step onto African soil. But Iron turned back, wanting to return to the place he knew: his crate. Gigi slowly lowered the crate door, preventing him from going back inside the crate. Iron just stood there, for so long it seemed, and if we were expecting him to leap out and rejoice, we would have been disappointed.
Eventually Iron turned away from the crate and ventured onto Emoya soil, his new forever home. Cameras went crazy and there was a collective sigh of relief. He was going to be okay. Iron took one look at his first tree and the rest is history.
Iron lovingly rubbed his head against the tree and even though it was the first time in his life that he had ever done that, something inside him greeted that tree as if he had known it all his life. The image that captured that moment went viral.
The difference in the cats after just a few days is plain to see. They have settled down and settled in. There have been a few neighbourly squabbles and some flirting, but for the main part, the lions have adapted quietly and quickly. Even sooner than we anticipated.
As the sun goes down each day, and you hear the last calls from Emoya’s local baboon troop, the lions truly come to life. The roaring begins, and animals and humans alike know that it is the 33 that really own the night.