Lionesses get dream ticket to Africa

International wildlife charity the Born Free Foundation, based in Horsham, have announced that two rescued circus lionesses, sisters Maggie and Sonja, will embark on an epic journey ‘home’ to Africa this week on the inaugural Kenya Airways Dreamliner flight from London Heathrow via Nairobi to Johannesburg.

Peter Andre, a Born Free Foundation Patron, with one of the lionesses. SUS-150121-133944001
Peter Andre, a Born Free Foundation Patron, with one of the lionesses. SUS-150121-133944001

Singer, TV Star and Born Free Patron, Peter Andre, will be making a special trip airside to see the lionesses as they are loaded on to the new B787 Dreamliner to start the 6,000 mile journey to their new life at the Born Free Big Cat Rescue and Education Centre at Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa.

Peter said “I was so excited to be asked to come along and witness part of Maggie and Sonja’s epic journey to Africa. It really is a dream ticket for them!

“After being told how cruelly these beautiful animals had been treated whilst living with the circus, I am really delighted to get the chance to join the Born Free team at Heathrow.

“I was shocked to learn that circuses which use wild animals as part of their acts are still legal in many parts of Europe, including here in the UK, and I hope to be able to raise awareness of this issue and what organisations such as Born Free are doing to try and change things.”

In partnership with Kenya Airways, and with Peter on-hand to wave them off, Maggie and Sonjabegan their journey on Tuesday 20 January, arriving in the UK from their temporary home in Belgium via the Eurostar.

They will then travel to Heathrow where they will fly to Nairobi aboard Kenya Airways’ new Dreamliner, before connecting to Johannesburg and completing the journey to their new home just outside of Port Elizabeth by road, transported by Land Rover vehicles.

Born in 2006, Maggie and Sonja spent the first eight years of their lives at a circus in Germany. Along with regular performances, they spent the rest of their time confined to a circus trailer in appalling conditions. When the animals were confiscated by the German authorities in 2013, the Natuurhulpcentrum (a Belgian Centre for the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals) stepped in and offered them temporary accommodation.

They have been at the Centre for the last year undergoing rehabilitation and being treated for wounds sustained whilst living in the circus, before being declared fit to travel to a permanent new home in Africa.

Sil Janssen, Founder of Natuurhulpcentrum said, “When the lionesses arrived they were in very poor condition, suffering from open wounds. Our team have worked hard to improve their physical and psychological wellbeing and now they are in good shape and are ready to make their rightful passage to Africa where they belong”.

Ahead of the relocation, a team of animal welfare professionals, including senior vet and Head of Wildlife at the Shamwari Game Reserve, Dr Johan Joubert, and Born Free’s Big Cat Expert Tony Wiles, will work with staff from Natuurhulpcentrum to prepare Maggie and Sonja for the journey. With such a long journey ahead of them, keeping Maggie and Sonja safe and comfortable is paramount, as Born Free’s Big Cat Expert Tony Wiles explained.

“The lionesses will be monitored throughout the journey and after receiving such great care and attention at Natuurhulpcentrum we know that they are ready for the move. All necessary preparations have been carefully considered and we have a fantastic team on hand to look after them.”

The team at Kenya Airways were proud to be able to offer Maggie and Sonja passage to Africa as part of the launch of their new Dreamliner, which will operate between London and Nairobi, Kenya.

Sally Peters, Marketing Manager of the airline, which has worked closely with the Born Free Foundation on numerous projects, including the inflight ‘Change Brings Change’ appeal, said: “We are delighted to have our new Dreamliner operating out of London Heathrow but to have such special passengers on board makes this is a truly memorable flight” Born Free’s President, Will Travers OBE, who will join Maggie and Sonja for the flight to Nairobi, added:

“To see the dedication of so many to give these lionesses a new future under the African sky is a dream come true. Born Free’s vision is that one day no more animals will have to suffer like Sonja and Maggie have and that wildlife will live in the wild where it belongs.”

On arrival in Johannesburg, the lionesses will be transported with support from Born Free’s partners at Land Rover in two Land Rover Discoveries to their new home at the award winning Shamwari Game Reserve.

Here they will be released into a large African bush enclosure at the Born Free Education and Rescue centre, where they will start their new lives.

Report and pictures contributed by the Born Free Foundation.