Lion rescuers met at midnight in the parking lot of a hotel in the Romanian town of Suceava, 50 km from the Ukrainian border.
“It looks very worrying,” says Lionel de Lange, a South African animal park owner who led the operation. “But it was really the first time the 13 of us had met and we hit the road. Five minutes later our first vehicle broke down.
Their destination was a zoo in the port city of Odessa, an eight-hour drive across the war-torn country, where nine lions were fast running out of food.
Ukraine is home to a large number of exotic animals kept in private zoos or as entertainment in hotels and tourist spots. The Russian invasion, which displaced more than 14 million people, seven million of whom fled Ukraine as refugees, also sparked an influx of animal rights organizations determined to rescue animals left behind. .
But few wildlife rescuers have the ability to remove and rehome a pride of lions.
De Lange has lived in Ukraine since 2014, rescuing bears, wolves and lions from dangerous conditions through the organization Warriors of Wildlife. He spoke to the Guardian from a cafe in Bucharest the day after the 72-hour journey to retrieve the lions and put them safely in a Romanian zoo.
The nine lions of Odessa bring to 38 the number of big cats brought across the border.
Even with her experience planning animal extractions, things can easily go wrong. Before the truck broke down, De Lange had to alter his planned route to avoid Russian bombardment.
He decided to travel through Moldova, requiring a new set of documents under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to approve cross-border travel, and a new round of negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine to provide police escort.
“It was not to protect us against the Russians,” says De Lange. The police were on hand to shoot the lions in case of an accident.
“Just in case something goes wrong, you have to have someone on standby who can do the sedation, to have firearms available, if there’s an accident, if a box falls after you been in an accident and she splits…because the authorities when we’re at the border post ask us all these questions about safety and what we’re doing.With one lion they don’t really care, and I’ve done it before, but nine lions made everyone very suspicious.
The rescue team, made up of British Army veterans and a vet, arrived in Odessa at 4 p.m. last Monday, too late to begin the seven-hour sedation and loading process. The zoo owner paid for them to spend the night at a five-star beachfront hotel, where the lights were turned off at 9 p.m. so Russian missiles could not target them.
“That was probably the weirdest part,” says De Lange. “We enjoyed our meals by the glow of our phones.”
The following morning, the lions were sedated, given a health check and vaccinated before being lifted porter style into travel crates, where they were awakened before the journey began. Four were loaded into a Ford Transit van driven by De Lange, four others were placed in the back of an ex-military truck and one in the back of a converted ambulance.
All made the trip safe except for the bumps and bruises from the travel crates.
“It’s stressful from the first moment you see them when you realize ‘I’m going to knock them over,'” De Lange says. “You’re dealing with wild animals that are completely unpredictable, and then you add the element of travel…you could be attacked if the Russians decide to target that area at that time of the morning or of the day, so there’s has so many things that you constantly think about.
The hardest part of the operation, De Lange says, was finding a zoo in Romania that would house nine lions, the largest of which weighed 230kg, until a more permanent home could be arranged.
The city of Târgu Mureș has agreed to house the lions until September 1, by which time De Lange hopes to have secured them a permanent home at a sanctuary in the United States.
“Everything else was easy – getting vehicles, making the trip, although it was a little nerve-wracking at times and we weren’t sure if we were going to be in the middle of a missile strike or not. It was all about to find a temporary home for nine cats [that was difficult].”
The rescue was funded by Animals Australia, which raised funds to cover vehicle hire. This is the second lion rescue funded by the organization since the war began on February 24.