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'Lions of Lockdown' rescued from French circus freed in South African reserve

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By Alasdair Sandford
One of the lions, Angela
One of the lions, Angela   -   Copyright  Credit: Born Free

Four lions who were rescued from what were described as "appalling conditions" in a circus in France have arrived at a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa following an appeal for funds.

The Born Free Foundation, which campaigns to keep wild animals in their natural habitat, says the three females and one male were born into captivity and spent years on the move with various French circuses.

Angela, Bellone, Louga and Saïda, aged from 14 to 16, were rescued in 2018 after being surrendered by a circus owner and have since lived in a temporary home near Lyon run by the charity Tonga Terre d’Accueil.

The COVID pandemic delayed their planned flight to South Africa following the foundation's "Lions of Lockdown" appeal, but this week they finally made the journey and have now arrived at the Shamwari Private Game Reserve.

The sanctuary will be "the next best thing to the wild", the Born Free Foundation says, as having spent their whole lives in captivity the lions would not be able to adapt and survive if they were released completely.

"We have a large natural bush enclosure with space the size of possibly two rugby fields for them, space that they have never experienced in their life, with natural vegetation, with the sights and sounds and smells of Africa," said Catherine Gillson, Born Free Manager at the Shamwari Reserve.

In France, the circus owner reportedly gave up the lions voluntarily following an accident, and decided to renounce using wild animals for entertainment.

"For years they were constantly on the move, forced to perform unnatural tricks in front of noisy crowds – music blaring, lights flashing. Their only home was a rusty trailer, with barely room to turn around," the Born Free Foundation says.

Tonga Terre d'Accueil
Two of the lions, Saïda (L) and Louga (R), on 'rescue day' from captivity, May 30, 2018Tonga Terre d'Accueil

In 2019, the foundation released four lion cubs into its big cat sanctuary in South Africa after being rescued from "horrendous" captive conditions in France. Known as the "Lions of Lyon", they began their journey at an animal rescue centre near the French city having been rescued by another wildlife charity.

Last November the French parliament passed an animal cruelty law which will phase out the use of wild animals in circuses and marine park shows. Circuses must stop using performing animals by 2026, and will no longer be able to keep them in captivity from 2028.

The Born Free Foundation says the number of lions in the wild has declined by 90% from around 200,000 in the 1960s, when the film "Born Free" was made, to as few as 20,000 today.