An animal rescuer is due to travel from South Africa to Ukraine this week to rescue nine lions from a zoo in a city that is under attack.
Lionel De Lange is today preparing to travel to the war zone via Romania in a convoy of vehicles to save the pride from Russian fire as well as the possibility of starvation as funds for their upkeep run out.
They will be temporarily relocated to a municipal zoo in Romania awaiting paperwork for relocation to a ‘forever home’ abroad, which could mean being flown out to Mr De Lange’s reserve in South Africa.
The intention is to move the pride to the temporary holding facility over the border in Radauti, north-eastern Romania, where another two lions rescued since the outset of the Russian invasion are also awaiting relocation.
One of the creatures, Simba, was driven to safety from close to the frontline in eastern Ukraine by two British humanitarian volunteers after they loaded him into the back of a van.
Mr De Lange, who is due to fly to Romania tomorrow, is the founder and director of non-profit group Warriors of Wildlife (WoW) and runs the large, open-air sanctuary in the Eastern Cape. He has so far relocated 28 lions and a tiger from Ukraine in rescues carried out since 2019.
He told Metro.co.uk: ‘We know that we are going into an area where there could be attacks at any time, but this is what I’m committed to do, we have to get these animals out.
‘Hopefully we’ll be able to go in and out without any issues. We will check the latest intelligence and speak to people on the ground and the safest time of the day to go, when there are no attacks.
‘Then our intention is to take them back over the border. It’s going to be a long, long journey.’
The mission involves first going to the zoo in Romania, where Mr De Lange will check if the crates are ready and get the vehicles together, before driving on into Ukraine.
He is being joined by videographer Daron Mann, who will be providing content and updates on his YouTube channel as they embark on a round trip which will involve more than 12,000 air and road miles.
The route involves a complex navigation of border posts and checkpoints, with the team travelling in around six to seven vehicles to and from the city, which Mr De Lange is not publicly naming for security reasons. The largest truck will handle about four crates each containing a lion.
As well as the mortal danger from Russian guns, which also creates stress and restricts the animals’ movement, the big cats face food shortages from the private zoo’s lack of funds. On average, an adult lion needs five kilograms of meat a day, roughly equivalent to a bag of potatoes.
‘Everyone is worried about these lions while the place where they live is under attack,’ Mr De Lange said. ‘No one knows what will happen.
‘The other problem is these parks are no longer open to visitors, so they are not generating money to feed the animals.
‘So if they are not killed by the shelling they could very well die from starvation because there is no funds to provide food for them.’
The pride will remain at the zoo in Romania while Mr De Lange seeks new homes for the creatures in the US, Europe or South Africa.
The holding facility is already the temporary home for two lions that have already been rescued from Ukraine since the Russian invasion began 82 days ago. Metro.co.uk previously told how one of the pair, Simba, was saved after British volunteers Tim Locks and Jonathan Weaving drove the adult male over the border in the back of a van.
Racking up 2,600 road miles, they spent five days on the road, which involved using a crane to place the living cargo in the Ford Transit.
The big cats are set to be repatriated to Simbonga Game Reserve and Sanctuary, with Mr De Lange in the process of securing paperwork to give the pair a home at the 14,000 square metre haven.
The fate of zoo animals has been a side note to the unfolding horrors of the invasion, which has included a massive exodus of refugees and widespread evidence of war crimes by Russian troops.
However, Mr De Lange has said that, compared to humanitarian groups, there are few organisations dedicated to rescuing animals, and humans have a responsibility to animals in captivity that are in the line of fire.
He has told Metro.co.uk that he would ‘never, ever’ contemplate leaving the creatures in Romania, because there are no open-air havens in the country that could recreate their natural habitat.
In a Facebook update, WoW said: ‘The rescue is a go. We have our visas to enter Romania and then travel by road into Ukraine with a convoy of vehicles to evacuate 9 lions from a zoo in an area that is under attack.
‘We will then relocate the lions to a temporary holding facility in Romania while we wait on permits for them to travel to their forever home.
‘We will not divulge the zoo’s name or city in Ukraine for security reasons but will keep you informed of our progress all the way.
‘We have to complete the mission before the 30th May but hope to do so in the week before. It’s logistics and paperwork that we are now waiting on.’
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