Thirty-three lions were flown to South Africa on Friday, escaping what animal rights activists have called a life of abuse and suffering as circus animals. The animals are set to live out their days in their native African bush.
"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," Jan Creamer, president of Animal Defenders International, said in a statement.
The organizers said the rescue is the largest-ever airlift of captive animals.
The animal rights charity picked up the lions after the use of wild animals in circuses was banned in Peru in 2011 and Colombia in 2013. Colombia handed over nine of the big cats, while in Peru surprise police raids on circuses freed the remaining creatures from dire conditions and hunger.
"Almost all of the rescued lions have been mutilated to remove their claws, one has lost an eye, another is almost blind, and many have smashed and broken teeth, so they would not survive in the wild," ADI said in a statement.
The lions are heading to the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in northern South Africa, where they will live in large natural enclosures with drinking pools and toys.
"The lions are returning to where they belong. This is their birth right. African sun, African night skies, African bush and sounds, clouds, summer thunderstorms, large enclosures in a natural setting where they can remember who they are," said Savannah Heuser, founder of Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary.
The lions will first be released into smaller enclosures to form bonds. There are two family prides and several pairs. Others will be introduced to determine whether they will form families.
"Ricardo, the one-eyed lion" and "Joseph, the almost-blind lion" will be provided with special assistance to meet their needs, ADI said.