Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

An inspiring visit to Born Free's Big Cat Rescue Centre at Shamwari Game Reserve

Debra Davies, Born Free supporter and Activator

My visit to Africa was to realise a lifetime ambition, to observe animals in the wild, which began as a young girl inspired by the film Born Free. So, with much joy and some trepidation I arrived into Cape Town with my friend to begin that long awaited journey to see the incredible wildlife of Africa. We travelled alone and drove ourselves from Cape Town, nearly nine hundred kilometers eastwards to Shamwari Game Reserve.  The country was vast and it was with relief when we arrived at Shamwari, and pulled up to the lofty yet quaint Long Lee Manor where we were staying.  It had far reaching views over the wildlife watering hole, the bush and the distant hills.  In those distant hills was nestled one of Born Free’s rescue centres, the Julie Ward Centre.  

Julie Ward Education and Rescue Centre, nestled in the hills (below)

I was crystal clear about my plans, having spoken to Tricia at Born Free in England the previous week.  Tricia immediately responded to my enquiry with incredibly helpful information about the two Born Free Centres in the north and south of the Reserve and how to get there. I was determined to see both and so our Shamwari Ranger arranged for that to happen. At first light the following day we breakfasted and reported to our jeep and travelled down dirt tracks to Born Free’s Julie Ward Centre, built in memory of the young wildlife photographer who was tragically murdered in Kenya. It was very early and we were met and shown into an attractive, thatched building to see a heart-warming film about the origins and aims of Born Free’s work, including a dedication to Julie Ward’s life and her wildlife photography. I too shared that interest. 

Visitor viewing platform. The big cats can remain out of view in their spacious enclosures if they wish (below) 

But even the film does not prepare you for the beautiful, tranquil and natural setting of the Centre as you walk through the bush and step onto the platforms to view those lions rescued from terribly confined conditions, now living out their days, at one with nature, free from chains and cages.   It is the most humbling of experiences. Seeing these majestic lions - and leopards too - freed from their former cramped lives, now exhibiting their natural behaviours in spacious surroundings, is incredibly moving.  

First we met Sinbad and Achee; these lions tugged at the heart strings as both had clearly been through a lot before finally reaching this place of sanctuary and freedom.  It seemed they had both been fed inadequate diets as cubs in Romania, which had left them with some physical disabilities, but it clearly wasn’t holding them back.  Sinbad was half the size of a normal male lion, but he didn’t know it! Achee had neurological damage too, but although she had an ambling unsteady walk, she looked a very strong lioness and had a strong bond with tiny Sinbad.  Both lions showed tenderness for each other at every opportunity. 

Achee has an unsteady walk but she is a very strong lioness (below)

Little Sinbad (below)

We saw the other rescued lions: Brutus and Marina; Jerry and his little pride of sisters Maggie and Sonja.  However, the two leopard brothers, Sami and Alam were in hiding in the thickets in their enclosure.  New arrival Nelson was hiding too.  He had been confiscated from a French zoo and had arrived only recently, in May.  He was taking advantage of all the space now available to him, and remained hidden in the undergrowth.  The generous space was way above and beyond the confines of his former life. 

Our time drew to a close at the Julie Ward Centre and we headed north across the reserve to visit Born Free’s Jean Byrd Centre.  This was an extraordinary adventure in itself as we traversed vast plains, zig-zagged across tracks in the bush, climbed steep hills with incredible views of the wildlife from above, encountering wild lions, hippos, jackal, wildebeest, eland, springbok, zebra, elephants and the impala kill of a cheetah (we had seen a cheetah mother with four cubs the previous day) all along our exciting journey between the Centres. 

Shamwari’s wild lion cubs, living on the reserve (below) 

Visiting the Jean Byrd Centre too was an uplifting experience. As we walked between the enclosures we saw beautiful lions and leopards, now able to experience freedom from the circus trailer and the zoo cage.  The enclosures were surrounded by a vast wilderness, with the surrounding sounds, sights and smells of the wild providing these noble creatures the opportunity to use some of their suppressed instincts.

We met Shada, rescued from a French circus, still magnificent at 20 years old.  She had her head raised, with evident curiosity, to watch a bird high in the sky, allowing me to take a picture of her beautiful features.  

Shada – studying a bird high in the sky (below)

There were brothers Jora and Black, rescued from a Bulgarian circus, sunning themselves together (below) 

Leda (the mother of the other resident leopard Rhea) was simply stunning as she looked nonchalantly at us through the long grass.   White lioness Queen, from a lion breeding farm, was radiant with her pale colouring reflecting the dappled sunlight and the other new boy Ciam, who also arrived in May, rescued from a man who kept him as a pet in a tiny cage in his garden, was studying the bushes for any signs of movement.  Having observed Shamwari’s wild lions, Born Free's lions and leopards, were all displaying very similar natural behaviour, either walking around or relaxing in the sunshine, and there was no pacing or any signs of their former stress at all.

Ciam, an ex-pet kept in a garden cage (below)

I had read the story boards on the visitor platforms at both centres, containing the grim details of the prior imprisonment of all the rescued cats and I know now, first hand, how absolutely critical the work of Born Free is to the individual lives of those freed animals, now being afforded dignity in their lives, and to those not yet free, the possibility of a freer life. I have since adopted Sinbad and Achee and Shada and I am inspired to contribute further to Born Free’s incredible work to help individual captive animals experience freedom from suffering, and to keep wildlife in the wild!

D Davies July 2017

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

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