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Lions rescued from Middle East war zones heading for South African sanctuary

Four-year-old Simba and two-year-old Saeed are headed to the Lionsrock facility near the town of Bethlehem.

Two lions rescued from neglected zoos in war zones in Iraq and Syria have been transported to South Africa to recover from physical and psychological trauma at a big cat sanctuary.

Fiona Miles, of the animal welfare group Four Paws, said the male lions have arrived in Johannesburg on a Qatar Airways flight after leaving an animal refuge in Jordan on Sunday.

The lions arrived emaciated, dehydrated and psychologically scarred in Jordan last year.

Simba is recuperating after being rescued from Iraq (AP)

Now, four-year-old Simba and two-year-old Saeed are headed to the Lionsrock facility near the town of Bethlehem.

Some of the 80 lions at the facility came from a German circus and zoos in France, Romania and Congo. Others are from South African captive-bred lion operations that often earmark the predators for “trophy” killings by customers.

The lions had been extracted them from a zoo in eastern Mosul in Iraq and an amusement park near Aleppo in Syria. The two cities have experienced some of the worst fighting that has hit both countries in recent years, killing large numbers of people and leaving whole neighbourhoods in ruins.

Most of the 40 animals at the Mosul zoo died of starvation or were killed in bombings while some escaped from their enclosures, according to Four Paws. The group’s members reached the location a year ago and evacuated the only two animals they found – a bear, and Simba – to Jordan.

Saeed was rescued from Syria by the animal rights group Four Paws (AP)

The other lion, Saeed, was rescued in July along with 12 other animals from Syria’s Magic World amusement park. The animals reached Jordan after staying for two weeks in Turkey, whose government assisted with the evacuation.

Both lions were traumatised when they arrived at the Al-Ma’wa Animal Sanctuary in Jordan, Four Paws said. Since then, they have received medical care, including vasectomies and dental work, and have gained weight on a steady diet that included lamb meat treats.

Some of the captive-bred residents of Lionsrock have deformities from inbreeding, and none can be released into the wild, said Ms Miles.

She said a key goal is to raise awareness about the conditions of lions and other animals in captivity around the world.

The lions arrive in Johannesburg (AP)

Conservationists point to broader challenges facing Africa’s wild lions, whose population has plummeted. Problems include shrinking habitats and poaching, in which lions become trapped in snares laid down indiscriminately.

Another concern is demand in some Asian countries for lion bones used in traditional medicine. Currently, South Africa allows the legal, annual export of bones from hundreds of captive-bred lions to China and south-east Asia.

There are nearly 2,900 wild lions and about 7,000 captive lions in South Africa, according to the government.

Security at Lionsrock is tight, a necessary precaution in a country where poaching is a frequent threat. Last year, poachers broke into another wildlife sanctuary in South Africa, killing two of its big cats.

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