The lions of lockdown are home!


After nearly 4 years and 8 thousand miles, our ‘Lions of Lockdown’ have finally reached African soil as they make it to the safety and sanctuary of their forever home. 

Two photos side by side. the first shows two lions lying in a rusty circus trailer; the second shows one of the lions emerging from a travelling crate into the sanctuary.

Four adult lions, all born in captivity, housed in cramped, rusty trailers, and compelled to perform in a travelling circus for most of their lives, have finally taken their first, precious steps on African soil. 

Sold as young cubs, Angela, Bellone, Saïda and Louga were all removed from a French circus in 2018 after their owner relinquished them. Since then, they’ve been looked after by experts at a rescue centre near Lyon. In early 2019, Born Free became aware of the lions and their heart-breaking story, and promised to give them a forever home at their big cat sanctuary at Shamwari, in South Africa. 

Generous Born Free supporters raised the funds to transport the lions to their ancestral homeland. Preparations were made, special crates built, permits obtained and flights booked. And then Covid struck a brutal blow to the plans – travel restrictions meant the whole move had to be put on hold indefinitely. And so, like so many of us affected by the impact of the pandemic, these magnificent ‘Lions of Lockdown’ have been forced to wait for the journey that will transform their lives. And we are delighted to report that they have now arrived safely in their ancestral homeland!

Their great adventure began at their rescue centre, Tonga Terre d’Accueil near Lyon, France. They travelled by road to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, before departing by air for South Africa.

All four lions were remarkably calm and relaxed during their journey, and when they reached their final destination, Born Free’s Big Cat sanctuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, the team were delighted to see them all emerge confidently and enthusiastically from their travelling crates, and start to explore the native landscape of their 3-acre enclosure.

Louga, the only male in the group, has enjoyed sitting in the shade of one of the trees, keeping a watchful eye over the three females who have remained close together. They have all been eating and drinking well, and the Born Free vet and welfare team are confident they are quickly adapting to their new surroundings, overlooking the reserve.

Angela, Bellone, Saïda and Louga now join a proud heritage of nearly 50 big cats given new lives in the sanctuary of Shamwari, by Born Free. The Julie Ward Centre, where the lions were released this morning, was opened on 29th March 1997 by our founder, Virginia McKenna OBE, and Shamwari’s original owner, Adrian Gardiner.

The logistical feat of re-locating four adult lions cannot be underestimated. Many hundreds of hours of planning, evaluation and care undertaken by Born Free’s experts and specialists, together with our valued partners at Tonga Terre d’Accueil and specialist animal logistics company Herport in France, Qatar Airways Cargo’s WeQare programme, Shamwari Private Game Reserve, and Pride of Africa Wildlife Solutions in South Africa, has been meticulously invested in ensuring the safety, comfort and security of the lions at every stage of their journey. In addition, we are grateful to Company of Animals for providing storage for the travelling crates.

A lion roaring in the African plains
“I am overjoyed our ‘Lions of Lockdown’ are now at Shamwari, loved and respected as they deserve. Grass beneath their feet, sun on their backs and the shade of trees where they can rest. At last. That is the Born Free way.” ~ Virginia McKenna OBE

We would like to officially thank their partners and the many, many generous people involved at every level who’ve ensured the success of this incredible rescue and who made this release a reality. We are particularly grateful to our friends at Lazy Lions who have generously donated funds to cover a full year’s specialist care for two of the lions, Angela and Louga. 

Catherine Gillson, Born Free Manager at Shamwari Private Game Reserve, said: “We are delighted that Louga, Saida, Angela and Bellone are safely with us at Shamwari. The journey of our Lions of Lockdown has been long, but hopefully with each day spent with us in the peace of our sanctuary, they will continue to grow from strength to strength. Their re-homing to our Big Cat Sanctuary at Shamwari will allow them to get as close to experiencing the life they were denied for so many years! The sights, sounds and scents of their fellow rescued big cats will heighten their senses immediately as they begin to acclimatise to their new lives. They are now in their forever home in Africa.”

There has never been a more crucial time to protect and prioritise the future for lions. In the 1960s, when the film Born Free was made, there were approximately 200,000 lions in the wild. Today as few as 20,000 remain. A devastating decline of 90% in just 55 years.  

To ensure their survival in the wild and to campaign for their welfare in captivity, 2022 has been named our ‘Year of the Lion’ – a year of action for lions in honour of what would have been the 100th birthday of the charity’s fearless founder Bill Travers MBE. 

Will Travers OBE, Executive President & Co-Founder of Born Free stated: “We have always championed the importance of every individual animal. Angela, Bellone, Saïda and Louga, like Elsa, Christian, Cecil who went before them, are all individual lions who touch our hearts in different ways. That is why saving lions from the worst forms of human exploitation – in circuses, zoos, as private ‘pets’, or from canned hunting facilities – is so important to us all at the Born Free family. It defines who we are. We had to help the beautiful Lions of Lockdown and give them a life worth living. And our efforts have never been more important than now. In memory of my late father, Bill, a lion of a man, 2022 is Born Free’s Year of the Lion. It is our chance to help individual lions in need and protect a species in frightening decline in the wild. Giving the Lions of Lockdown a new beginning in South Africa shows us all that it is possible to create a forever future for these magnificent creatures. So, let’s all roar for lions!”

You can still support our ‘Lions of Lockdown‘ appeal! A today will help give Angela, Bellone, Saïda and Louga, the enriched, loving, care for life they deserve.


Images © Tonga Terre d’Accueil, Brad Louwrens