Males brought from Belgium to life of freedom at Shamwari
Two lions, one kept as a pet in a backyard and the other from a zoo, both in France, tasted freedom for the first time on Saturday when they were released at the Born Free Centre in the Shamwari Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth.
Ciam, a 2½-year-old male, and Nelson, a 17-year-old male, started the arduous, roughly 10 000km trip from Belgium to their new home where they will be looked after and left to be lions.
Sil Janssen, founder of Natuurhulpcentrum (Nature Help Centre) in Opglabbeek in Belgium, where the animals were kept after being rescued, and British actress and co-founder of the Born Free Foundation, Virginia McKenna (OBE), accompanied the lions on their journey.
Speaking after their release, Janssen said it was important to find the big cats the best possible place to rehome them.
“It was important for us to get them to Africa because of the climate [and] Shamwari is the best place for them,” he said, adding that he worked very closely with the Born Free Foundation to rehome many other animals.
McKenna said she felt total joy when Ciam and Nelson walked out into their respective enclosures.
“We couldn’t ask for a better place [for the lions], we are so happy about the way the animals are cared for at Shamwari. . . it’s a happy retirement home for them,” she said.
Janssen said the lions which started their trip on Thursday morning, had special crates made for them to be transported to South Africa.
The animals were humanely trained to go into the crates beforehand with the hope that they would be comfortable in them during their journey.
From Belgium, the pair – along with Janssen, McKenna, the manageress at Shamwari’s Born Free Centre, Catherine Gillson, and a number of other caregivers – drove to Frankfurt in Germany before flying to Johannesburg and then taking a connecting flight to Port Elizabeth.
Arriving on Friday evening at Shamwari, Janssen said the duo were relaxed and calm during their trip.
Ciam was bought as a cub for ß14 000 (R206 600) from a circus by a Frenchman and kept as a pet in his back yard before being rescued by Janssen and his team.
After his arrival at Shamwari, the young lion was quick to leave his holding pen and investigate his new surroundings.
Nelson was rescued by Janssen and his team after the French government contacted him to assist with a liquidated French zoo which was owned by a Belgian.
Trepidatious at first, Nelson was a bit apprehensive to leave his holding pen and had to be coerced by a tempting piece of meat.
McKenna, who started the Born Free Foundation with fellow actor Bill Travers (MBE) in 1984, said that Nelson as an older lion was accustomed to being around people and showed a deep sense of insecurity.
“It was very interesting to see the different way Ciam walked out exploring and going through his camp,” she said.
“Nelson is much older and might adjust more slowly.”