Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Bella at Lilongwe Jan-June 2010

June 2010

Photo Koen Van Sweeveldt

Two supporters from Belgium, Koen Van Sweeveldt and Sofie Dethier, spent the month of June 2010 volunteering at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre.  In their spare time they spent as much time as possible with Bella, the one-eyed lioness rescued from a zoo in Romania, and a leopard called Kambuku, rescued from a local zoo in Malawi.  We asked Koen and Sofie to send us a report on their experiences.  First Sofie reports:

Bella enjoys her confined freedom with grace and curiosity as she observes the leaves of the trees whistling with the wind, it fascinates her tremendously!  Her gorgeous face focused to the sky, she seems to listen to what the winds are telling her while the sun enlightens her gaze...

When approaching her enclosure, she mostly comes to greet you with her deep ‘whuffs’ while she rubs her head and body against the fence. She likes to walk with you along the fence line and she loves it when the keeper gives her a ball to play with. She likes to roll over on her back in the sand or in the grass, or just sunbathing on her back with her paws up in the air. Although she seems to cope with her life pretty well, she probably would appreciate some company of her own species …let’s hope in time this would be possible. This is our impression because she expresses such a display of ‘mumbling’ sounds to show her appreciation when you spend some time near her enclosure. If you stay long enough, you can actually feel her comfort growing and her body language becomes so relaxed, soft eyes , she really seems to show her gratitude… very touching.  We appreciate though, that with Bella being half-blind, and with her weak spine and back legs, a more powerfully-built lion could accidentally or deliberately harm her, so we know it will need a special lion to be introduced to her.

Bella seems to enjoy when you talk to her with a calm and low voice and while doing so she often will doze off… This is how we experienced her in our presence but we also saw her stalking her keeper when he was cleaning her night cage…the predator in her comes alive, nature kicks in. This also happened when two bush pigs came investigating when Koen was visiting her and all of a sudden she went in her stalking mode, as if she wanted to tell the pigs to move away, which they immediately did!  She didn’t allow them to disturb her and her visitor.  As soon as the bush pigs took off, she became her friendly soft-hearted self….quite a character!

photo - Koen Van Sweeveldt


In a camp not far from Bella’s camp lives a wild-born leopard called Kambuku; they are not able to see each other.

The word Kambuku is Chichewa for leopard.  (Chichewa is the official national language of Malawi).  Kambuku arrived at the wildlife centre on 24th April, 2007 and is a permanent resident.  He was first rescued after being caught in a poacher’s snare in Nyika (North Malawi) which shattered his knee seriously to such a degree that he can’t be released into the wild; he would not survive. He was then put in Lilongwe Zoo where, unfortunately, he was not handled gently so he developed a strong antipathy for humans. This may well be the reason why he ‘hides’ most of the time on his high platform and shows no interest in whoever comes to visit his enclosure, although leopards are more secretive than lions by nature.  Sadly his trauma seems huge but he at least has found some peace in his present ‘home’ where he can live without fear and stress and where there is little interference in his life from people.

Kambuku, like leopards usually do, sleeps a lot during the day and with his platform being his favorite place, you don’t have to bother looking for him:  he always can be spotted right there hiding his beautiful head behind the thick pole, his shiny body glowing in the sun, resting in silence…

  • Photo Koen Van Sweeveldt
  • Photo Koen Van Sweeveldt


When Sofie and I went to the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi as volunteers I was excited to meet Bella.  With lions in particular I have a special feeling. This started in my childhood when I saw, as so many amongst us, the film ‘Born Free’. After this film, George Adamson rehabilitated many lions back to the wild where they belong. Also for Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, this film changed their lives and eventually the Born Free Foundation was born. Me, I was imprinted with wildlife, and in October 2009, around 30 years after I first saw the film Born Free, my wife and I joined a trip to Kenya with Virginia McKenna which was to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Born Free Foundation.  There, Virginia told us about Bella and it became a passion to visit her at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre.   

I did not want the time I spent with Bella to interfere with my work, so every day before I started my daily activities I went to see Bella; also at lunchtime I sat next to her enclosure eating my sandwiches. Sometimes Bella came to the fence, on other occasions she didn’t bother, totally not interested; it was all depending on her mood. After four days I noticed things were about to change! When I walked up, I could see she was already looking as if she was expecting me, then she rushed to the fence, pressing her head and body to it. It was at this moment I heard for the first time a lioness’ whuffs.  From that day on, she came every time at first sight. I never gave her anything to encourage her, no toys or food. I just sat there and talked to her in a low voice, full of emotional feelings.   I talked about George Adamson, Virginia and Bill. Sometimes it was as if they were all there.

Every day I may say, in all modesty, Bella seemed to enjoy my company more and more. I believe lions have a sense of telepathy and I think she really knew what I was trying to do. It seemed she sometimes wanted me to walk up and down the fence with her.  I didn’t know that but she stared at me, walking a few steps, coming back and starting again. I hesitated but started to follow, and there she went, taking me all the way down the fence-line and back again.  She then began to roll over on her back, again and again, as if she was pleased.  This rolling on her back she did every time I arrived to spend some time with her, and every time she got closer and closer to the fence. 

One day I was again sitting next to her on the other side of the fence during my lunch-break, when I heard something behind me. It was two of the bush pigs we had been warned about. I felt very uncomfortable but at once Bella stood up. She stalked the two bush pigs as she crouched to the ground, nature and instincts to the fore. The two bush pigs rushed off to my relief and Bella came back to me, rolling on her back with an expression on her face as if to say, ‘did I do alright?’  I felt so privileged by her affection and trust and thought what Virginia and Bill must have experienced, but on a much bigger scale with Henrietta and Girl, two of the ‘Born Free’ lionesses.

The days of our volunteering came to an end and on the last morning I went to Bella, after an absence of three days. I was afraid she would react differently but no, she rushed to the fence with such force, purring, whuffing, and I shivered deeply. She flung herself down, this time glued to the fence.  She lay closely, listening again to my stories. I stayed with her in that way for a full two hours, I didn’t feel my knees anymore, but I knew it would be the last time.

That afternoon it was time to say a final goodbye, but when I came to her enclosure she didn’t approach at all.  She lay there with an expression of great indifference. It was the first time she had done that and I was puzzled and upset. Again I thought of George Adamson when he wrote about their telepathy; did she know from what I had said earlier that day? I guess so, so I respected her attitude and feelings and walked away.  In the corner of my eye, I could see her watching as I went...

See a montage of photos of Bella in Romania and enjoying her new life at Lilongwe Wildlife Park.  This moving short film was compiled by Koen Van Sweeveldt

3rd June 2010

Djolien de Wit

Bella, the one-eyed lioness rescued from a Romanian zoo in March 2009, and now living at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi, has recently been enjoying the environmental enrichment ideas devised by volunteer and student, Djolien de Wit from Holland.  Djolien spent three months at the Centre working on some ideas for games for Bella.  In preparation she flew over everything but the kitchen sink, including a bright orange bowling ball, strong rope, essential lavender oil and vapour-rub and planned the activities over a number of weeks together with her Dutch colleagues and the Centre’s care team.  Thanks to their work Bella will have more fun and games in the future!  Djolien reports on some of the highlights:

The elephant droppings

The first game required elephant droppings which were transported from Kasungu National Park. With Bella safe in the other half of her enclosure the manure was put in little piles starting just in front of her night enclosure. The moment the wind turned and brought the smell towards her, she got up and curiously started walking towards the source. Knowing only the carers as her pride she shared her findings with the bystanders.  Rolling next to the piles, she grabbed it in her mouth and took it to the shade to roll in it some more. Soft roars and loud purring gave the impression she was having the time of her life...

Djolien de Wit

The bowling ball

A bowling centre in the Netherlands donated a big heavy bright orange bowling ball. This must be something even a one eyed lion would notice, right? Well the first thing Bella did was walking up to the people standing in front of her enclosure. What where all those people doing there? Not seeing the ball she started walking up and down the gate. Trying to make her see it, pebbles where thrown in the direction of the ball. The moment she saw the ball everything changed. Purring loudly and smashing her big paws on the ball, she played with it like a kitten. Rolling it around, losing it and suddenly finding it again... hours of entertainment!


Food as enrichment is something that is used a lot with all sorts of animals. A carnivore, like Bella, eats meat, something with a strong smell. Making it difficult to eat by hiding it in a cardboard box or knotting it in rope is a great way of providing stimulating games at feeding time. Feeding time always brings Bella to the same spot. She lay there waiting for her usual easy meal, not knowing that today's menu is a little special. You could see her think 'Wow dude what is this? It smells great!'. The force with which she forced her nose into the box made it collapse at once. Not seeming to care for the food inside she went crazy about the box. Throwing it around, rolling over it, who needs food when you have meat smelling cardboard! 

Or sometimes we tried knotting the food in a rope. The rope was tightly secured to a tree – or so it was thought.  When Bella smelt the meat she went for the rope and with brute force ripped the rope from the tree. Bringing her ‘prey’ to her platform she began to chew the pieces of meat from between the knots. Laying there looking lazy she used her big paws to drag more rope to her for more delicious definitely made mealtime more fun! 

Thanks Djolein!

Djolien de Wit

February 2010

Photo BFF/ W. Travers

I was lucky enough to visit Bella in February when Born Free Foundation’s Chief Executive, Will Travers, and I spent two days at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre for a management review meeting.  It was the first time Will had seen the work of the Centre and it was great to show him all the rescue and rehabilitation work that takes place there, as well as introduce him to the great team who care for all the animals.

We walked slowly up to Bella’s enclosure and spotted her lying in between the fence line and the trees.  She soon spied us and came over to say hello.  It was remarkable to see her looking so well – and what we saw was a lioness completely transformed from the one Born Free had first seen in the cold, damp concrete enclosure in Romania when our Rescue Team was planning her relocation.

Bella flopped over on her back and squirmed around, her feet lolling in the air and getting as close to the fence as she could.  She loved the attention and followed us along the fence line, occasionally stopping, lying on her back again and batting the low lying branches. 

Her coat looked healthy and her movement had improved.  She tracked our movements, probably through sound as much as her limited vision.  And the fly traps that had been set up outside the enclosure were working a treat, attracting the flies away from Bella. One happy lion.

With the hectic schedule on our flying visit, the 15 minutes we spend with Bella gave us a calm interlude and a little time to reflect on what a difference can be made for animals like Bella who for many years had endured a lonely, confined and often freezing existence.

Alison Hood

January 2010

Photo BFF/Alison Hood

Dr Catherine Wood, Veterinary Manager, Lilongwe Wildlife Centre:

We have a rescued leopard in the sanctuary and in the evening when he is calling, “sawing”, Bella will prick up her ears and listen.

Something else Bella listens to: thunder.  – she seems very startled by sudden rain showers and will growl at the clouds when it thunders, as if they are an animal growling at her.

It is interesting seeing Bella’s response to rain She will ‘point’ at the shivering leaves, one paw uplifted, as if they were potential prey and then chase the falling water.  She will shake her head when the rain drops accumulate on her ears, and then lick the water off her nose.  I expect our warm, heavy downpours – it is about 30 degrees C here at present - that suddenly stop and start, are a bit different to the rain she experienced in Romania.   She has large, airy indoor quarters she can retreat to though, whenever she wishes.  And she enjoys the rain!  She will actually come outside to have a romp in it.  She also chases flying ants and dragonflies.  She has a laid back but playful nature.

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

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