Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Bella Arrives at Lilongwe

Photo Roland Leon Sunday Mirror

March '09

Tricia Holford, the Born Free Foundation’s Rescue Co-ordinator, reports on the arrival of Bella, the one-eyed lioness from a Romanian zoo, at her new home: the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi.

3rd March - We all held our breath as Bella emerged slowly from her crate, one foot at a time, stepping onto the soft sandy soil.  Standing alongside her crate, on the other side of the fence, was Virginia McKenna and Wildlife Centre supporter Sue Alves.  They had had the honour of opening the crate to give Bella her freedom, and had waited patiently for 40 minutes for Bella to feel comfortable enough to emerge.  Now the waiting was over.

Bella stood outside and looked at the trees around her, and then left and right at the few people standing quietly along the fence line.  Then a strange thing happened: Bella walked over to Virginia McKenna and, ignoring Sue standing beside Virginia, she looked Virginia straight in the eye.  Many of us watching said that the intense exchange seemed endless, although in reality it only lasted several long seconds. 

Perhaps it isn’t so strange.  Many of us who spend time with dogs will have experienced the recognition they seem to have of the stranger who has experience with their kind.  Perhaps Bella could sense this familiarity and understanding Virginia McKenna has with lions. 

Perhaps it is merely because Bella is only long-sighted in her remaining eye and was trying to focus on the first human nearest to her. At the time though, many felt it was a spine-tingling moment, only broken when Bella turned to sniff the air.

She then walked steadily across the freshly-cleared earth towards the trees, and with one final backwards glance over her shoulder towards Virginia, Bella melted into the trees.  She walked through the trees into open ground by the fence and we left her to explore her new world in private.


Bella had had a long journey from Romania, in more ways than one.  On her last day in Brasov Zoo it was snowing.  Bella doesn’t like the snow, and would remain in her heated indoor quarters in bad weather. However, she obligingly put in an appearance when zoo vet, Dr Ion Brumar, called her out for us to give her a final check-over.  She had bonded with Dr Brumar in the five months she had been there, after having been transferred temporarily to Brasov from the grim conditions of Buhusi Zoo.

The next day Bella was darted by John Knight, our senior veterinary consultant, and was driven to Bucharest Airport for the short chartered flight on the Russian Antonov plane that would take her to Kent.  (There were no direct flights out of Romania.)  JCS Livestock Carriers met us at Manston Airport and drove Bella and the rescue team to Heathrow Airport.

Then, from Heathrow to Nairobi, and Nairobi to Malawi, courtesy of Kenya Airways, to her final destination.  Whenever we checked on her, Bella seemed calm and comfortable, even though the journey must surely have been tiring and stressful for her.

We were greeted at Lilongwe Airport by Sanctuary Manager, Lee Stewart, and by Mark and Angela Sprong and other members of the team from Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, all very keen to see their new guest.  Our rescue team was whisked off to the luxury of the nearby Sanctuary Lodge while Bella’s crate was driven to the Wildlife Centre and unloaded. 15 minutes later we had joined her, and Virginia and Sue got ready to pull open the crate’s door……


I have seen Bella in horrendous conditions at Buhusi Zoo, the slum zoo that, thankfully, is now closed by the Romanian government.  I have seen her in her temporary enclosure in Brasov Zoo where her conditions were much improved.  And now, I have been privileged to see her in her wonderful new home, and meet the kindly, sensitive, enthusiastic team who will care for her.  I wish my colleagues from “Lion’s Roar” could be here too. They worked so hard to improve Bella’s conditions while she was incarcerated in Buhusi, and to help raise the funds for this rescue.  I know they are over the moon that we have been able to give such a happy ending to her story.


4.3.09 – we visit Bella and find her lying on her back, basking in the sunshine.  She remains upside down beside us for about a minute, and then gets up and walks a few feet into the shade of the trees.  The meat she was given the day before has disappeared, so, even if she hasn’t eaten it, it is encouraging that she has taken it away.

5.3.09 – Wyson B. White, Head of Animal Care, reports that Bella has been seen lying on one of the large, comfortable, wooden sleeping shelves that have been constructed for her.  Wyson also reported that one of his colleagues had called to her, and Bella had come over to say ‘hello’.  She certainly seems to be settling in very quickly!  When we visit later in the morning, she was lying in the open by the fence, and remained beside us, quite relaxed, and then got up and sniffed at us, before going to lie in the trees, a few feet away.  She is a very friendly lion, but if more than a couple of people are near her, she prefers to put a bit of distance between herself and visitors.  Now, at last, she has that choice.


Bella’s footprints have been seen in the spacious indoor house that has been constructed for her.  This is a relief, as it is still the rainy season in Malawi, with sudden heavy downpours that drench the land for about 30 minutes at a time, and it is good to know Bella realises she can take shelter if she needs to.


Bella is seen walking out of her house, and using her sleeping platform again.  Apparently she has a struggle to get on and off the platform, even though it is only about 12 inches from the ground.  Her weak spine and abnormally curved back legs, probably the result of a poor early diet, make even this simple manoeuvre difficult.  We decide to see if she develops a technique of getting onto it and, if it still proves difficult, to lower the height of the platform.


The Wildlife Centre’s vet, Dr. Richard Ssuma, reports that Bella has been walking up and down the fence besides him, rubbing her face and body affectionately along the fence.  It is really good to hear this, as she hasn’t shown this gesture of affection with anyone since her arrival.  Even so, many of our rescued cats take much longer than this to be so relaxed with the new people they meet.


We pay a last visit to see Bella; we return home tomorrow, as our other work in Malawi is finished.  Bella is lying in the grass at the edge of a clearing when we visit this morning.  She is unbothered by our arrival, and I am glad she is not so keen for human company that she comes straight over to us.  She is alert to the sounds of twigs snapping in the forest around us, but makes no effort to get up and investigate.  She is panting a little – she still has the thick winter coat that she needed to protect her from the Romanian winter – but not panting heavily.  Eventually she lays over on her side, and we leave her sleeping.  We depart knowing she is in kind, caring hands and that her transition from a concrete floored cage to her camp of African bush is complete.

Photo Roland Leon - Sunday Mirror
Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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