Uday Hussein's Lions May Be Freed in African Wilds

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She said the Baghdad Zoo officials were very helpful. They, too, had been traumatized, with the zoo having been stripped of computers, furniture, and even door handles by looters. But a good understanding was soon built up which led to them willing to have the lions go to South Africa, Maas said.

It has been agreed that the bear should go to Greece, and that a South African veterinarian would do an operation there to remove cataracts from its eyes.

Joubert says that in addition to the work done by Maas and her organization, the help that had been offered to bring the lions to South Africa has been wonderful.

Emirates Airlines has offered to fly the animals to Johannesburg International Airport at 75 percent discount. And to spare them the additional five-hour journey it would have taken by road to the SanWild Sanctuary, a group of pilots who fly for conservation and are called the Bateleurs, have offered to fly them there.

A special crate will be built for the lioness and her cubs for the journey to South Africa. Like the two one-year-olds, she will be sedated. The cubs will not be sedated. The idea is that they should be separated from her but still close enough for her to see them and for them to see and smell her.

Joubert said the U.S. soldiers named the lioness Xena, and from all accounts there is hardly reason to fear she will not get through the trauma of the flight. "She gave perfect birth despite the bad conditions and the trauma suffered from the war around her. And that to six cubs, which is an unusually large litter. This seems a very special animal," she said.

At SanWild, the lioness would be allowed to raise her cubs away from people. Everything possible will be done to see that they grow up in the way they would have had they been born in the wild.

Plans are for her and the cubs to be transferred after a year or so to a community game reserve in South Africa's KwaZulu Natal province on the eastern seaboard of the country. The 6,500-hectare (16,000-acre) Ngome Reserve belonging to the Zondi clan of the Zulu Kingdom has no lions at present, and the intention is to eventually bring in a male lion. It would only be done when the cubs are reasonably grown, however. It would also have to be a male that is not yet sexually mature, so that there is no danger of it killing the young ones.

The two other lions from Baghdad, the one-year-olds, are to be placed in an enclosure adjacent to a camp housing a brother and sister pair that came to SanWild as eight-week-olds. Now 14 months, and having been raised with minimum human contact, they have between feeds started hunting small game like birds, monkey, and warthog.

Only once the two pairs started showing an interest in each other and there is a good possibility that they will form a coalition would they be allowed together. The hope is that the two older inhabitants would then teach the new arrivals to hunt. But the latter would still be fitted with tracking collars to see whether they were hunting or not.

Joubert is not concerned about returning the animals to the wild. "There is no reason why they shouldn't learn to hunt quite quickly. But they have to get fit first. Sitting in a zoo is not good for a lion's endurance."

Maas says there could not be a better solution for the lions than to bring them to South Africa. "It feels like they are going home." But she says funds are desperately needed.

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