Ricardo is one of the 24 lions being rescued from a circus in Peru.

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33 lions, many in poor health, are rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia

'Largest lion airlift' will fly them to a sanctuary in South Africa

CNN —  

Zeus, Shakira, Ricardo and their fellow felines are ready to embark on a trip of a lifetime.

The 33 lions, many of them in poor health, were rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia and are being taken to their homeland to live in an animal sanctuary in Africa.

The “largest lion airlift” will take place on Friday, organized by Animal Defenders International. The non-profit has worked with the Peruvian and Colombian governments to pass bans on wild animals in circuses.

“These lions have endured hell on earth and now they are heading home to paradise. This is the world for which nature intended these animals for,” said ADI President Jan Creamer.

The rescued lions were found in poor conditions. Many of them had their claws removed and had broken teeth, according to ADI. One, Ricardo, is missing an eye and another is nearly blind.

Twenty-four of the lions were rescued in surprise raids on a circus in Peru, where they were living in cages on the backs of trucks. Nine lions were voluntarily handed over from a circus in Colombia.

The pack of big cats is heading to the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Limpopo, South Africa.

“There are awesome sanctuaries all over the world who take care of lions in a magnificent way, but it’s good to have the lions back in Africa where they belong,” Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary co-founder Minunette Heuser told CNN. “The temperature and climate here is the best thing for them.”

The private sanctuary is on land owned by the Heuser family. The sanctuary is currently home to six lions and two Siberian tigers, but there’s plenty of room for the new lions to make their homes, Heuser said.

Transporting the lions requires one big plane. A McDonnell Douglas MD-11 cargo aircraft will pick up nine lions in Bogota and then head to Lima for the other 24 lions. A team will be on the plane to monitor the cats during the flight.

“The animals have to be in travel crates of a certain specification for international travel,” ADI Executive Manager Angie Greenaway told CNN. The lions will not be sedated when they are being moved or while they’re in flight, she said.

“We group the animals there in social and family groups so they are by one another on the flight,” Greenaway said.

The mission will mark the largest lion lift ever, Greenaway said. The previous record airlift took place in 2011, when ADI rescued 25 lions from circuses in Bolivia and relocated them to a sanctuary in Colorado.

The transport wouldn’t have been possible without an online crowdfunding campaign by ADI and GreaterGood.com, which raised about half the cost of the airfare. Almost 200,000 miles of the 230,000-mile journey had been funded as of Wednesday morning.

Major donations from other animal-welfare groups, including Bob Barker’s DJ & T Foundation, helped launch the effort to start raiding circuses in Peru.

Although several South American countries have passed legislation in recent years banning wild animals in circuses, enforcing the laws is tough, said Greenaway.

“It’s quite a common issue,” she said. “A lot of the circuses had animals because the legislation wasn’t being enforced. That’s why we stepped in and helped the government with that.”