(NEW YORK) — Amid the heartbreaking reports of atrocities in the Middle East, including chlorine-gas attacks and airstrikes against civilians in Syria, comes a story of hope: Saeed and Simba, a pair of lions rescued from Syria and Iraq, have been saved from war, relocated to a sanctuary in South Africa.
Saeed, a 2-year-old cub, was abandoned at the Magic World amusement park outside Aleppo as fighting nearby increased. Simba was left in the Mosul zoo in Iraq during the height of the ISIS insurgency.
In 2017, Four Paws, an Austria-based animal-rights group, organized elaborate operations to extract the lions from their respective war zones and transfer them first to Al-Ma’wa Animal Sanctuary in Jordan.
Finally, this week, the lions reached their forever home: the Lions Rock sanctuary in Johannesburg, South Africa, home to 90 other large cats. There, Simba and Saeed will be able to grow up in a pride, with plenty of socialization and interaction with other lions.
The lions endured significant hardship during their time in the war zones. Four Paws experts say they were malnourished and have psychological issues due to the noise of bombing and chaotic atmosphere.
Four Paws reports some zoo animals disappeared -– presumably stolen to be sold on the black market.
In order to keep their staff and the animals safe, Four Paws built custom cages to fit onto vehicles and deployed multiple convoys in order to transport the lions to safe havens undetected by combatant forces.
In Saeed’s case, the Turkish government made an exception to open the long-closed border between Turkey and Syria to allow the lion’s passage.
For Simba, the journey involved multiple false starts. He was turned away at the border and returned to the Mosul zoo once. On the next attempt to move him, the lion was held by government officials for a few days before being allowed to leave Iraq.
The lions’ escapes were facilitated as civilians, especially in Syria, are subject to attacks from many groups and unable to leave.
“It’s heartbreaking for us and our teams to see people living in these types of conditions, not being able to get out,” said Robert Ware, executive director of Four Paws USA.
Ware told ABC News a potential escape of an exotic animal poses a public safety concern to civilians in the area. The animals also consume food and water in areas where such resources are already scarce.
Lions Rock staff say Simba and Saeed are now working on gaining trust with their keepers, learning very basic commands to enter and exit pens for their safety and care.
“Rehab really starts at Lions Rock,” Ware said. “The lions are definitely scarred. Lions Rock is where these problems can come out.”
Already, the lions have achieved some exciting milestones in their new home, according to Barbara van Genne, head of the Big Cats program for Four Paws.
“Simba started exploring his new enclosure and he already met his new ‘girlfriend,’” Van Genne said. “And Saeed was very impressed by the new sounds and smells and hearing the other lions roar, and feeling grass under his paw for the first time.”
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