What began as a heartwarming rescue of abused circus lions has taken a tragic turn.
33 lions were rescued from abusive circuses in Peru and Colombia. [Photo by Martin Mejia, Associated Press]
Last year in May, rescuers with the non-profit organization Animal Defenders International (ADI) descended upon circuses in Peru and Colombia and liberated a total of 33 lions. These lions were brought to a sanctuary in South Africa, where they could roam around out of the cages they were likely used to. Unfortunately, the lions can never be returned to the wild. Because they performed at circuses, their claws have been removed and their teeth destroyed. Thus, the lions won’t be able to defend themselves or catch prey.
South Africa’s Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, with its drinking pools and platforms, was the next best thing for the lions. When the lions were finally able to set foot on the sanctuary, it seemed to be a happily ever after. However, that wasn’t to be for two of the rescued lions.
José, left, and Liso in better times [Photo by Animal Defenders International]
Two of the male lions, named José and Liso, were staying in the special needs section of the sanctuary. When the two were rescued in Peru, ADI CEO Jam Creamer remembered that “they were snarling, spitting balls of fury.” Some time after arriving at their new home, however, the two lions became calmer. They also became extremely good friends, with Liso acting as a guide for José, who had brain damage due to repeated blows to the head.
However, poachers snuck into the sanctuary on May 29 of this year and poisoned the two lions. The poachers then cut off José and Liso’s heads, tails, paws, and skins.
This may indicate an alarming new trend of poachers targeting lions at sanctuaries, breeding farms, and reserves. There is a demand for lion body parts for use in traditional medicine in Asia and Africa. Traditional African medicine, called muti, has uses for lion heads, tails, and paws. Also, since wild tiger numbers are dwindling, there’s now a demand for lion parts as a substitute. Lion teeth and claws are also used as trinkets and necklace pendants in China. Thus, there’s definitely a market for lion parts and poachers are working hard to fill that demand. There’s likely no difference to them whether a lion is a wild one or a rescued one living in a sanctuary.
José and Liso's death hopefully won't be in vain. [Photo by Animal Defenders International]
“It really shook us,” says Tim Phillips, co-founder of ADI with Creamer. Workers at the sanctuary had lived and worked with the two lions, who were making such good progress.
Now, ADI is working with South African Police to find the killers. In the course of the investigation, ADI noticed that attacks on sanctuaries and private reserves began in 2016. There was virtually none in 2015. There were 18 attacks in 2016, and there has already been 20 attacks in northeastern South Africa in the first eight months of 2017. Most of the attacks were the same: the lions had been poisoned, then mutilated.
Phillips thinks that the legal international trade in parts of captive-bred lions may be partly to blame. The legal trade fuels demand for lion parts, which poachers take advantage of.
ADI is now spending $7,000 a month on security for Emoya to keep the remaining 31 lions safe. The organization also set up the José and Liso Anti-Poaching Fund, which seeks to raise money for South Africa’s anti-poaching efforts.
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