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Big cat Transfer: Full coverage

Three lions and two tigers released in LIONSROCK

Three lions from Serbia and two Tigers from Germany have started their new life in LIONSROCK! In spite of border control delays, Lepa, Cornel and Ivan made it to Frankfurt on time, where they were transported to by truck. On Monday night, a Lufthansa aircraft took them to their new South African home. Also on board were tigers Natasha and Gandhi, who had a much shorter journey from nearby Rüsselsheim. Monitored by FOUR PAWS vets throughout the transfer, the five big cats reached Johannesburg’s Tambo International Airport on Tuesday morning and were released at LIONSROCK in the afternoon. Follow-up on every step of the journey, as it happened!

Sunday, September 23, 7 AM

A Serbian CITES officer and a cameraman arrive at the lions’ shelter. Shortly after, they are joined by a FOUR PAWS team. The helpers had travelled to Belgrade on Saturday, taking care of the final preparations for the transfer. Many of them have already been involved in several big cat transfers – their experience and routine will definitely come handy over the next hours and days. The lions are slightly nervous, as they can sense that something is going on. The first tricky bit is that the two males are kept in the same enclosure: this will take good timing. For everything to go smoothly and according to plan, they will have to be sedated at the same time. Luckily, they are already in the outdoor section of their small and dirty hut. The team manages to bar the connecting gate in order to prevent them from hiding indoors once the sedation process has started.

9:15 AM

Two wildlife experts begin darting the first lion. The darts contain an anaesthetic and come with a little hook that keeps the dart from falling off. If the darting of a big cat goes wrong, it would be hard to determine the dose for a second try. Everyone is relieved when it turns out that both males have been sedated successfully with only a minimal time gap. Wild animals have to be awake when transported on the road, so the challenge is to make sure everything works quickly while inflicting as little stress as possible on the lions. The darting of Lepa, the female lion, happens very fast in without any problems.

10 AM

Ivan, Cornel and Lepa are all asleep and the helpers can remove the darts. They are being weighed and measured to make sure the team has the right data – and they receive several infusions: Sodium chloride is applied, so the animals don’t dehydrate. After being sedated the lions can’t be given water for six hours, and they also have to travel on an empty stomach to avoid nausea and vomiting. They also get atropine, which reduces the production of saliva. They journey will be long and the temperatures are still quite hot. That said, lions do actually handle the stress of such a long transfer quite well - and the fact that their lives will be so much better really does make it worthwhile.

11 AM

By now, the three travelers are all in their transport crates, which are being fixated with straps on the truck. Getting them from the shelter to the nearest road was a logistical challenge, but a tractor and a trailer were at the team’s disposal. A customs agent has arrived on site to assist with pre-customs declarations which will make the waiting times at the border crossing-points a lot shorter. The truck has very low sidewalls, which gives the vets access to the lions at all times and from all sides. Two drivers will alternate shifts on the road. The rest of the team will be following them in a second vehicle.

12:10 PM

Ivan, Cornel and Lepa are awake, all the gear has been loaded onto the vehicles and the journey begins! The estimated travel time to Frankfurt is 20 hours, but given that several stops will be necessary to make sure the lions are doing alright, the FOUR PAWS teams expects to arrive around midday on Monday. This still includes a buffer for unforeseen delays, but not too much in order to avoid lengthy waiting times at the cargo gate. Their deadline is 5 o'clock on Monday afternoon.

5 PM

A scheduled pause is used to check on the three animals, who are lying calmly in their crates. Through a dispenser, they all receive water for the first time since this morning. The helpers expect a smooth trip through the rest of Serbia, and then through Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany.

7:30 PM

Passing the Serbian border takes longer than expected. The FOUR PAWS team members remain calm since experience has shown that no matter how well prepared the documentation is, there can always be problems at a border. It often depends on the officers in charge – and on the authority they have. After an hour and a half, the vehicles are allowed to pass, but things get worse on the Romanian checkpoint. The small convoy is stuck for another five hours.

Monday, September 24, 2 AM

After a long discussion and many phone calls, all issues are resolved. The lions are on their way again. But the transfer has fallen far behind schedule. Only two short pauses will be possible if the group wants to stand a chance to arrive in Frankfurt on time.

10 AM

The journey has continued without problems. There is a sense of nervousness, given the severe delay, but the fact that everything is running smoothly now is allows for guarded confidence. The lions are still calm as they are given water again.

11 AM

Now it is also time for the tigers: FOUR PAWS staff members, the house vet and various journalists are arriving at the animal shelter in Rüsselsheim, where they were accommodated lately. The two majestic big cats are very nervous and hiss a lot. However, compared to the lions their first destination is just a stone’s throw away: it is only 30 minutes to the airport from here. In addition, they are already well prepared, chipped and vaccinated, so the usual vet-check can be skipped and they only need a light sedative.

3 PM

The darts is placed without any problems. Still, there is a sensation of thrill and unease among the team members: how long does a light sedative last? The answer follows promptly: soon as tigress Natasha lies in her transport crate, she opens her eyes… An hour later the departure is imminent. The two tigers embark on their short trip to the airport, where they pass the gates to the “Animal Lounge”. Here, the crates with the animals are prepared for loading and customs formalities are taken care of. Natasha and Gandhi are given fresh water.

5 PM

Also the Serbian FOUR PAWS convoy has arrived at Frankfurt Airport! The team has made it on time and the crates with the lions are now also prepared for the flight. After long hours of uncertainty, everyone is relieved that Lepa, Ivan and Cornel can now soon be on their way to LIONSROCK.

10:15 PM

The plane to Johannesburg takes off on schedule. Veterinarians accompany the flight of lions and tigers – and on Tuesday morning the South African FOUR PAWS staff will take over and handle the three-hour trip to Bethlehem. For the members of the Serbia team, it has been a journey to remember. But the stresses and strains will all be forgotten once the three lions jump out of their crates, with their new lives at LIONSROCK ahead of them.    

Tuesday, September 25, 8:45 AM

The airplane touches down at Johannesburg’s Tambo International Airport. FOUR PAWS staff members head to the customs hangar and wait for the big cat crates to be unloaded. The South African team has arrived with a transporter truck – everything is prepared and in place in order to avoid delays.

9:45 AM

The animals are in the hangar and receive fresh water. They are hissing and growling, which is actually a good sign: they are active and haven’t been weakened by the long trip. The South African veterinarian officer on duty arrives to inspect the crates, check on the animals and sign off the paperwork.

11 AM

The transport boxes are loaded onto the truck with a crane arm. They are fixated with belts and everyone’s ready to go! The trip to the Free State will take about three and a half hours. Luckily, everything went smoothly, because the impatient passengers have to be released in daylight.

2:45 PM

The convoy arrives at LIONSROCK! The three lion crates are immediately taken to the familiarization enclosure, while the two tigers are already brought to their permanent plot. Usually all arrivals have to stay in a smaller enclosure for a little while to facilitate the monitoring by keepers and vets, but the layout of the tiger area fulfills these requirements sufficiently. Now the entire team is really excited – the European colleagues are constantly kept up-to-date on the progress over the phone.

3:30 PM

Ivan, Cornel and Lepa are jumping out of their transport crates! Soon as the hatches are open, they don’t hesitate and run into their new territory. This isn’t always the case: there were lions who stayed in there for a whole day, even though the door was open, but these three have been on the road for a very long time. They visibly enjoy this and take in all the new impressions. Shortly after, tigers Natasha and Gandhi are also released. They come out swiftly as well and immediately start exploring.

5 PM

The animals have all been fed immediately. The LIONSROCK vets and keepers take note of the fact that particularly two of the lions are extremely thin and that Lepa seems to have chronic problems with one leg, which is likely to be the result of years of malnutrition. But the overall first impression is very good. The big cats appear to have made it through the stressful journey without problems.

Wednesday, September 26, 11 AM

The LIONSROCK team is watching the new arrivals carefully. Particularly the lions are still a bit shy and go into hiding when humans approach, but this won’t last long. It is a very hot day and the animals rest in the shade. All FOUR PAWS experts agree that based on how they behave less than a day into their new lives, they will adjust to the new surroundings very quickly. Their suffering has ended now.

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