A beautiful male lion lying on a viewing platform in the sun in South Africa

King Returns to Africa

Thank you to everyone who made this possible

In 2018, Born Free was delighted to announce that young lion, King, had started a new life in his ancestral home of Africa. Find out more about King’s journey from terrified cub in a Paris apartment, to magnificent young lion at our tranquil Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, by reading the story below.
A tiny lion cub chained and inside a box

King was found in Paris after shocking videos were shared on social media (c) f30md’a

In summer 2017, distressing images were circulated on social media of a tiny lion cub being kicked and beaten by an unknown man somewhere in France. Horrified members of the public alerted the authorities, who immediately launched an investigation.

Their inquiries led them to an abandoned apartment in the Paris suburb of Noisy-le-Sec. Inside they made a shocking discovery – a male cub, half-starved and cowering in a small, dirty cage.

French animal rescue charities Fondation 30 Million d’Amis and Refuge de l’Arche sprang into action to treat the poor cub and found him a temporary home at Natuurhulpcentrum rescue centre (NHC), in Belgium. There, he was nursed back to health and named King.

At just a few months old, little King was an innocent victim of the illegal wildlife trade. His ‘owner’ was taken into custody on charges associated with illegally keeping a wild animal and animal abuse.

King had the worst possible start to his very short life, but with your help, we wanted to give him a life worth living. We endeavoured to bring King ‘home’ to our long-established big cat sanctuary, the Jean Byrd Centre, at Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, to provide King with lifetime care in a spacious, safe and enriching environment, surrounded by the sights and sounds of Africa.

You will understand just how upset I was to hear about King – a tiny cub with a mighty name who has had the worst possible start to his very short life.

Dame Virginia McKenna DBE
A young lions running out of a travel crate into the African bush

King is released from his travel crate into his new home (c) Claire Radloff

In 2018, after a successful appeal to raise funds to transport King to Africa, and overwhelming public support, we were delighted to announce that King had arrived on South African soil.

King started his journey from Natuurhulpcentrum rescue centre, Belgium, on Thursday 5th July. From Belgium, he travelled under the care of Born Free’s expert team to London Heathrow airport for a flight to Africa, courtesy of Kenya Airways. After a short internal flight, King touched down in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, before travelling the short distance by road to Shamwari and to his new home at Born Free’s Jean Byrd Centre.

Virginia McKenna OBE, Born Free’s Co-Founder and Trustee, said: “I am sure there will be a lot of smiling faces today! So many people responded to our appeal to bring young King to Shamwari, and now he has arrived! Thanks to everyone whose hearts were touched by his story, he now takes his first steps on African soil and can begin his happy new life.  May it be a long and peaceful one.”

Shamwari has been home to Born Free’s two Big Cat Rescue Centres for more than 20 years. Comments Group General Manager, Joe Cloete, said: “To be able to welcome King to his new home is incredibly heart-warming for us, especially so during our refurbishment process, of not only some of the lodges, but the Born Free Centre itself. Conserving a vanishing way of life and educating guests on the importance of living in harmony with nature and wildlife is what we strive for at Shamwari Private Game Reserve.”

Born Free’s Corporate Partner, Kenya Airways, flew King to Africa. Katrina Hanson, Kenya Airways’ Area Cargo Manager, said: “We were delighted to assist in King’s amazing relocation to Born Free’s Big Cat Rescue Centre at Shamwari in South Africa. We have worked with Born Free for many years carrying rescued lions from Europe to Africa so they can enjoy being a lion. These relocations have been a great success and we do all we can to make it as stress free as possible for the lions. Kenya Airways’ cargo facilities at Heathrow and across our network are fantastic for animal welfare from the smallest and domestic, to the mightiest of beasts! We were delighted to have King on board.”

Swissport provided crucial logistics support for King’s journey. A Swissport spokesperson added: “The Swissport team are proud to have been a part of King’s journey to Born Free’s big cat sanctuary. With the help of Kenya Airways and our dedicated staff, we hope he had a smooth journey and will enjoy his new surroundings.”

The sad story of King before he was rescued highlights the plight of millions of captive wild animals around the world that are kept as exotic pets. Born Free opposes the keeping of wild animals as pets. Wild animals, whether they have been taken from the wild or bred in captivity, have extremely complex social, physical and behavioural needs and are, therefore, particularly susceptible to suffering when kept as pets.

Later in 2018, we were delighted that King won the Animal Rescue Award at the Daily Mirror Animal Hero Awards.

Wild and exotic animals should never ever be kept as pets, no matter how darling they look when they are small, and no matter how much we feel we could give them a wonderful home. Their lives should be in the wild: and to buy them means propping up a ghastly and cruel trade.

Dame Joanna Lumley DBE FRGS
A lion and lioness snuggling together in a lush green landscape

King and Thea have been inseparable since their introduction (c) Shamwari Private Game Reserve

In September 2020, King was introduced to Thea, one of the Lions of Lyon who arrived at our sanctuary in October 2019.

In August, we temporarily subdivided King’s enclosure with a fence and moved in Thea so they could interact and become familiar with each other, but still have their own space. Within a week, the lions were spending most of their time nuzzling against each other either side of the fence, or sitting only metres apart.

After a month, we made the decision to properly introduce them. King moved through the sliding gate in the dividing fence to greet Thea in her side of the enclosure. Her initial reaction was to give him a gentle swipe on the nose but, she quickly warmed to him. Since then, they have been inseparable, spending their time playing together and climbing on their jungle gym.


A young lion sits draped over a log facing the camera

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Close up of a male lion roaring

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A Chameleon sits on a persons hand in front of plain grey background

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