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/ Source: TODAY
By John Peragine

On Sunday, a plane landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, full of some very special passengers: 33 lions rescued by Animal Defenders International — from circuses across Peru and Colombia — arrived in their new home at the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa.

South Africa Lion Airlift
A former circus lion scratches its head against a tree inside an enclosure at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Vaalwater, northern, South Africa, on May 1. Thirty-three lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia will live out the rest of their lives in a private sanctuary.Themba Hadebe / AP

Their journey began April 29 in Lima, Peru.

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“We are waiting for nine lions that were rescued from a circus in Colombia,” said Matt Rossell to TODAY from the Lima airport on Friday. “We have 24 lions we rescued with the aid of the government in Peru.” The effort has been part of an ongoing project for the past few years, he said, beginning as an undercover operation in Bogota, Colombia, and Peru.

South Africa Lion Airlift
A crate carrying one of the 33 lions rescued from South AmericaDan Kitwood / Getty Images

“We shot video of the mistreatment of these animals in the circuses and presented the evidence to their governments,” Rossell said. “All the countries have now passed laws forbidding circuses from owning wild animals.” He added that while most circuses have been cooperative, other rescue efforts involved raids to save the big cats.

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South Africa Lion Airlift
Animal Defenders International worker Yani Mateus gives one of the 33 Lions water ahead of it's release into it's new enclosure at the Emoya 'Big Cat Sanctuary' on May 1.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

All of the lions rescued were born in captivity, but they are being released on a large preserve where they can live in their natural environment. “There is no such thing as a domesticated lion,” said Rossell.

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Savannah Heuser, founder of Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, said in a statement, “The lions are returning to where they belong. This is their birthright. 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.”

33 rescued circus lions were airlifted to Africa
Animal Defenders International

Many of the lions needed medical and dental treatment because they were mishandled. Some had their claws removed, one lost an eye and one was almost blind. “One of the things that lions do in captivity is chew on the metal bars of their cages, and this lead to broken teeth that became infected,” said Rossell. “We have already performed dental surgery on a few of the lions while awaiting transportation to Africa, and more surgery is planned once they reach the sanctuary.”

33 rescued circus lions were airlifted to Africa
Many of the lions need medical and dental treatment as a result of being mishandled during their time in the circus.Animal Defenders International

The operation, Spirit of Freedom Flight, has been a very difficult and expensive venture. ADI has received funds from Bob Barker, the longtime TV game show host, and organizations such as the online community GreaterGood. But the effort still needs funding to transport and care for the lions, so the organizations have created fundraising campaigns at lionsbacktoafrica.org and 33lions.org.

South Africa Lion Airlift
Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary workers offloaded a cage carrying a former circus lion in Vaalwater, northern, South Africa, on May 1.Themba Hadebe / AP

According to ADI’s homepage, the lions will enjoy “large natural enclosures situated in pristine African bush, complete with drinking pools, platforms and toys” at the sanctuary. “The lion habitats will be steadily expanded over the coming months as the lions become familiar with their new life and are introduced to each other.”

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33 rescued circus lions were airlifted to Africa
The lions will live out the rest of their days at a sanctuary in South Africa.Animal Defenders International

Rossell told TODAY that the group made sure lion families were situated next to each other during the flight so they could be calm and know they were near one another. “At the sanctuary, lion families will be grouped together on protected land,” he said.

On Sunday, May 1, ADI posted a tweet that seemed to indicate early success with the program:

“It is so exciting to have the lions home,” Rowena Balwit, a representative of ADI, told TODAY. “The lions are doing well and they are very excited to be in their new homes and being reunited with their families.”