for National Geographic News
War-traumatized lions which Sadam Hussein's son Uday kept in a private zoo in one of the family's Baghdad palaces could soon be roaming free in the South African bush.
If all goes well with the rescue operation put together by a number of charitiesand a final decision is made to go ahead with the plana lioness and her six cubs, and a couple of one-year-olds, will be airlifted to their new home early next month.
The animals, along with a blind bear and two cheetahs, were neglected and living in terrible conditions when U.S. troops found them towards the end of the Iraq war. The soldiers using the palace as a base took care of them and, according to reports, were delighted on a day towards the end of April to find the lioness had given birth to six cubs.
Once in South Africa, an intensive program is planned to get them accustomed to life in the wild and to fend for themselves. Wildlife experts are hopeful that their natural instincts will prevail and that they will join with other lions to form prides.
The project to bring them to South Africa was initiated by Louise Joubert, founder of SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary, an organization based in the country's northern Limpopo Province near the Kruger National Park, which cares for and rehabilitates into the wild animals that have been orphaned, injured, or held in captivity.
Joubert saw the news about the discovery of the animals in a Hussein palace on television. She was raising a zebra foal at the time and, being kept up late into the night, she was watching television to pass the time.
"The television reporter said it was a wonder the animals had survived the fighting that had taken place in the palace grounds. They showed the animals, and it took one look into their eyes for me to take my decision," Joubert said. "I immediately phoned Dr. Barbara Maas, chief executive of Care for the Wild International, in London, and we agreed that we should get to Baghdad as soon as possible to see what we could do."
Things moved quickly. It was decided that SanWild could accommodate the animals if they could be brought out of Iraq. But the first priority was to stabilize their situation in Baghdad. That meant making sure the animals were safe and properly cared for.
"Barbara played a big role. She went into Baghdad while the bullets were still flying. In negotiations with the Baghdad Zoo Committee it was decided that they had the facilities to keep the cheetahs, but that it would be better for the lions to come to South Africa," said Joubert.
Maas said there was still much gunfire when she arrived in Baghdad. It was decided to leave the lioness and her cubs at the palace for fear that any attempt at moving them might in the already tense conditions cause her to kill the cubs, she said. They are being cared for by the Baghdad Zoo, which is being assisted by a South African, Lawrence Anthony of Thula Thula Reserve in KwaZulu Natal province, who went there when he learned about the animals' plight.
The two other lions have been moved to a small indoor enclosure at the zoo. They could not be put into the open enclosure as the lions being housed there would most likely have killed them, and there is no other place to keep them, Maas said.
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