Thirty-three former circus lions are enjoying the African sun on their backs and grass beneath their feet after a lifetime of anguish and suffering in traveling circuses in Peru and Colombia. After a dramatic rescue operation by Animal Defenders International, the lions completed the remarkable trek back to their habitat (ADI).

According to Tim Phillips, co-founder of Animal Defenders International, rescuers faced significant challenges in tracking down and rescuing the lions from illegal circuses in Peru and Colombia.

Despite the fact that circus animals are illegal in many countries, many traveling circuses continue to operate in remote locations and have gone underground since the prohibitions were enforced. ADI teams worked with government authorities to identify and seize the animals, according to

SWAT teams and riot police were regularly called in to help secure and rescue the animals. They then had to transport the lions from far-flung Andean areas back to their rescue centers.

This project took 18 months to finish! The 100 animals saved included 33 lions. These gorgeous huge cats have spent their entire lives in cramped cages, being mistreated, and being wounded.

They were flown back to Africa, where they were 𝐛𝐨𝐫𝐧, under special circumstances! Unfortunately, the lions will never be able to survive on their own owing to their physical condition. In many cases, claws have been removed and teeth have been crushed. “They can’t go back to the wild,” Tim said in an interview. “But they can go back home.”

The lions will live out their days in peace and freedom at Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Vaalwater, South Africa.

“African sun, African night sky, African bush and noises, clouds, summer thunderstorms, vast enclosures in a natural setting where they can remember who they are,” Savannah Heuser, founder of Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, said in a statement.

Returning the injured, old lions to Africa was one of Tim’s greatest accomplishments, he noted. The lions roaring behind him may be heard at 2:56 in the video below. It’s as though they’ve recognized they’ve arrived at their destination!