Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Bella Leaves Romania


By Chris Wright - 2nd March 09

For Bella, the journey from Romania to Malawi had been a long one, in real terms, and metaphorically. Only two days prior to her arrival at the sun-drenched Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, she had stood on concrete in a snow-covered zoo, deep in the Transylvanian mountains. The contrast could not have been more stark, yet her journey to a better life had begun earlier still.

In Buhusi zoo where she had been incarcerated in deplorable conditions for the first seven years of her life, a glaucoma in Bella’s left eye had been allowed to deteriorate so much that she was now totally blind in that eye, and there was a risk of haemorrhage if the bulbous eyeball was knocked.  A cataract in her right eye meant Bella was virtually blind.  In two operations during December 2008, Dr David Donaldson from the Animal Health Trust in Suffolk, assisted by Born Free veterinary consultant, John Knight, successfully removed her left eye and removed the cataract from her right, giving Bella some long-sighted vision.

Bella spent the next three months recovering at Brasov, until at last she was passed fit to withstand the lengthy air travel that stood between her and a new home in Malawi.  When we arrived in Romania a couple of weeks ago in the midst of winter, we were met by sub-zero temperatures and flurries of snow that served to underline the incongruity of keeping a lion captive, so far removed from the tropical climate enjoyed by her wild counterparts.

Photo Roland Leon - Sunday Mirror

As evening drew in and the light faded, Born Free’s vet, John Knight, began the process of sedating Bella. Unfazed by the glare of torchlight, and the assembled Romanian Press, she succumbed calmly to the effects of the drug, allowing us to lift her onto a stretcher, administer a few final veterinary procedures and load her into her travelling crate.

Bella sedated

Watching the truck containing Bella slowly rumble its way out of the zoo onto the mountainous road to Bucharest, I allowed myself a brief moment of reflection as I looked at her empty cage, with a small sense of triumph. I tried to picture where she had come from and where she soon would be.

A sleep-deprived twenty-four hours later, having driven to Bucharest and flown to the UK, we found ourselves amongst yet more Press, eager to catch a glimpse of Bella in the shadow of the mighty 747 Kenya Airways aircraft into which her crate was carefully loaded. I stood on the tarmac beside Virginia McKenna, Born Free’s founder, sharing the sobering thought that there are so many more wild animals in desperate need in captivity, but drawing strength from the fact that we were improving Bella’s life immeasurably.


photo Roland Leon / Sunday Mirror

Try as I might to sleep on the flight to Lilongwe, I remained restless, anxious for the moment when Bella would take her first steps onto African soil…

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