From the frontline to ‘freedom’ – Tsar & Jamil arrive at Shamwari

Born into captivity, mistreated, malnourished, and rescued at the outbreak of war, we are delighted to announce that our ‘Ukraine Lions’ have finally found safety and sanctuary in their forever home.

Tsar, a male lion, is galloping as he enters his new enclosure at Shamwari Big Cat Sanctuary

Tsar as he entered his new home at Shamwari Big Cat Sanctuary (c) Lyndon Brandt

Today, after an incredible eight-thousand-mile journey and a monumental rescue mission involving countless passionate people and organisations around the world, the brothers started their new lives in their ancestral homeland after taking their first tentative steps on African soil; released to experience, for the first time, the sights, sounds and smells of South Africa at Born Free’s Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve.

Born in a Ukrainian zoo, Tsar and Jamil were taken from their mother as tiny cubs and sold to a farm where they were exploited as a ‘tourist attraction’. Kept in utterly unsuitable conditions, fed a poor-quality diet and without specialist care, the young lions became malnourished and sickly. Thankfully, following pressure from local animal protection organisations, the lions were handed over to a wildlife rescue centre in Kyiv. Here, the full extent of their suffering became apparent. Veterinary examinations revealed both lions had calcium deficiencies and Tsar had bone fractures. However, with proper care and nutrition, Tsar and Jamil began to recover from their ordeal – until further hardship came their way.

In early 2022, the outbreak of war in Ukraine presented a fresh threat to the lions’ future. Despite appalling conditions and the devastating human hardship faced by the country, an incredible team at the Ukrainian rescue centre worked alongside a Polish zoo and Natuurhulpcentrum (NHC) to evacuate the cats, via a brief stay in Poland, to the safety of NHC’s wildlife rescue centre in Belgium.

Since March 2022, Tsar and Jamil have been cared for by experts at Natuurhulpcentrum. Thanks to a caring and dedicated team, this half-way house has served as a haven for the lions while we meticulously crafted plans for their re-homing in South Africa.

That epic re-homing journey began on Friday night, when the brothers were gently loaded into their custom-made travel crates. The lions first travelled by road to Luxembourg airport, before departing for Johannesburg on a specialist flight, kindly provided free of charge by our air transport partner Cargolux. After 10 hours in the air, the lions touched down in South Africa. After being met and checked over by Born Free’s vet, Tsar and Jamil’s overland road trip to South Africa’s Eastern Cape began; every step under the watchful eye of our expert animal care team.

The lions covered over 1,000 kilometres on their journey from Johannesburg, every step under the watchful eye of Born Free’s expert animal care team, who stopped regularly to check on the lions and to ensure they had adequate water. When they reached their destination, Born Free’s Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari, the team were delighted to see both lions dash straight out of their crates into the natural bush of their 2.5 acre enclosure.

Half an hour later, the Born Free Animal Care team located the lions reunited, lying together in the night house of their enclosure. This probably felt like the safest place, with shade from the South African sun. Tsar and Jamil will take time to adjust to the sights, sounds and smells of the bush, and the space of their expansive new home. The Born Free team will be monitoring the lions closely, and are hopeful they will start exploring their new ‘forever home’ soon, perhaps after being fed lunch in the early afternoon. As can happen after a long transfer, both lions had small bruises and scrapes on their face, which were not of concern to the onsite vet, and should heal quickly in the African sun.


Tsar the male lion, getting ready to run as he exits a travel crate, with dry grass flying around him

(c) Lyndon Brandt

Born Free’s Co-Founder and Patron, Dame Virginia McKenna said, “It was with a sense of joy that I learned of the safe arrival of these beautiful lion brothers at wonderful Shamwari in South Africa. After enduring such misery and hardship in their early years, they can now live the rest of their lives as free as possible, just as nature intended. Grass beneath their feet, sun on their backs, and the shade of trees where they can rest whenever they wish. No longer exploited, but respected and cherished. For 40 years our charity, Born Free, has worked tirelessly for individual wild animals like Tsar and Jamil. Their story is the story of Born Free, one of perseverance, hope and change.”

Tsar and Jamil are now part of a proud heritage of 50 big cats given new lives in the sanctuary of Shamwari, by Born Free.

The logistical feat of re-locating two young lions cannot be underestimated. Many hundreds of hours of planning, evaluation and care has been undertaken by Born Free’s experts and specialists, together with our valued partners Natuurhulpcentrum, Shamwari Private Game Reserve, Cargolux, and British Airways Holidays, to ensure the safety, comfort and security of the lions at every stage of their journey.

We would also like to thank the many generous supporters and wonderful corporate partners who’ve ensured the success of this incredible relocation and made this rehoming a reality. In particular, our key partner British Airways Holidays which has generously donated funds to cover three years’ care for Tsar and Jamil, as well as the cost of the custom-built, specially designed crates used for the lions’ relocation. Also, our air transport partner, Cargolux, for their expert services and for transporting the lions free of charge from Luxembourg to Johannesburg. This truly team effort means these beautiful animals have now found solace in South Africa.

Tsar and Jamil’s rehoming is especially poignant for Born Free as it coincides with our 40th anniversary. We have a long and proud history of rescuing wild creatures from abuse, exploitation, and incarceration and the lion brothers are the 58th and 59th lions to be rehomed since our charity was founded in 1984.

Find out more about Born Free’s Rescue & Care work:



We are incredibly grateful to our valued partners who have worked tirelessly to ensure the safety, comfort and security of the lions at every stage of their journey.


Catherine Gillson, Born Free Manager, Shamwari Private Game Reserve added, “We are delighted that Tsar and Jamil are safely with us at Shamwari. They have been shifted to safety so many times in their young lives that we hope the final stage of their journey ‘back to Africa’ will bring them peace and a chance to enjoy a more natural life – a million miles away from the existence they endured in their formative years. Their arrival has brought much excitement to our Born Free Shamwari team. We look forward to providing them with the care and respect they deserve, in an environment that is as close as possible to the wild as you can get, here at our Born Free Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve.”


Frederik Thoelen, Biologist, Natuurhulpcentrum said, “We are very happy that, together with the various partners, we have been able to make such a big difference to the lives our lion brothers Tsar and Jamil. We welcomed them exactly 2 years ago when the war in Ukraine had just started, now we can finally take them to their forever home in South Africa. Our part in this incredible journey is done and we are sure that the lion brothers will now have a very good life under the African sun.”


Claire Bentley, Managing Director, British Airways Holidays commented, “Nature, wildlife, and destination communities play a critical role to our business. That is why we are delighted to be funding a three-year care programme for Tsar and Jamil who now get to enjoy a happy forever life in Shamwari, one of our fantastic safari lodge partners in South Africa. The project will also provide us a bridge to raise awareness of the importance of nature and wildlife in building resilience, which is why we are also initiating a learning-focused experience in Shamwari for 120 local students.”


Richard Forson, Cargolux President & CEO stated, “Cargolux is proud to be the air transport partner of Born Free for the relocation of the two lions that have been exploited in captivity all their lives to their new home in South Africa, where they will have the opportunity to live in an expansive sanctuary setting, surrounded by their natural habitats. Cargolux is a strong advocate for animal welfare, and supporting projects such as this one reflects our commitment to the cause. We are proud to be able to use our 50 years’ experience in live animal transport to return these majestic creatures to a natural environment.”