19 October 2022


A beautiful leopard lying in the shady long grass

Rhea: 1998 – 2022

We are devastated to report that our beautiful leopard Rhea has passed away.

It has been a sad few weeks at our big cat centres at Shamwari Private Game Reserve. As you may have heard, on the 15th September the difficult decision was made to euthanise our beloved lion Nelson due to declining health at the grand old age of 22. And just six days later on 21st September, twenty-four year old female leopard Rhea was also put to sleep due to issues she was facing in her old age.

In 2009, Rhea was rescued from the largest zoo in Cyprus, a facility that Born Free had been concerned about for years. In 1990, responding to complaints from countless distressed visitors, Bill Travers, Born Free’s Co-Founder, visited Limassol Zoo in Cyprus. Horrified by what he saw – concrete cages and disturbed animals, we began a Born Free campaign to try to improve conditions and close the zoo. The enclosure Rhea lived in with her sister Roxanni and mother Leda was barren, concrete, with the only ‘greenery’ some painted trees on the walls.

Thankfully, Rhea came to the Jean Byrd Centre at the age of eleven with her sister Roxanni and mother Leda after the Mayor of Limassol gave permission for them to be rehomed and that the zoo would not replace them.

Rhea was lucky in that she was able to spend nearly another two years living alongside her sister, and a remarkable eleven years more with her mother, who was already nineteen years old at the time of her rescue, and who passed away at the record-breaking age of thirty years old in 2020.

Rhea’s passing is cause for sadness for all her carers and everyone at Born Free. However, as with Nelson, she lived a very long life and had years of comfort and peace after a difficult start which gives us great comfort. Rhea spent more than half of her life in sanctuary rather than at the zoo where she started life, which is in itself a comfort to us all. Her health checks over the years generally yielded good results, with some extra care needed occasionally in the last four years since she reached the age of twenty. Her wildlife vet remarked last year that she was in a reasonable condition for a leopard of her age.

In fact, not only did Rhea’s mother Leda live to a record-breaking thirty years old, but Rhea herself – living to over twenty-four and a half – was not far from breaking the official world record for leopard longevity.

Manager of Born Free’s Big Cat Sanctuaries Catherine Gillson says: “Rhea has been part of the Born Free Shamwari family for so long, and although she was elusive at times and enjoyed the privacy of her large enclosure, it is strange and sad to know that she is no longer there.”

Animal Care Manager Glen Vena added: “I remember Rhea, her sister and mother taking their first steps into their hospital enclosures at Shamwari and spending their first night in their wooden boxes. Then the following morning seeing them exploring their new environment, which was just amazing.  Rhea was a beautiful, shy leopard and very fond of Martin and Headman, her primary care givers at the Jean Byrd Centre.

“We are devastated by Rhea’s loss, but also celebrate her long life, knowing she had the best care possible with our team. Her story was told to thousands of visitors and school children and she has been an ambassador for wild leopards and lions, supporting Born Free’s work to keep them safe in the wild for years to come. We have laid Rhea to rest in the garden of remembrance at the Jean Byrd Centre, next to her mother, Leda.”