Last April, PEOPLE shared the story of a bear and lion who were the last two animal survivors rescued from the Mosul Zoo in war-torn Iraq. After a harrowing history and journey, Lula the bear and Simba the lion found temporary reprieve at the New Hope Centre in Jordan through the efforts of Four Paws International, an animal rescue organization based in Austria.
Now the group has further good news to share. Simba, along with another lion named Saeed who was rescued from Magic World outside Aleppo, Syria, are heading to a permanent home at Lionsrock sanctuary in South Africa after their time recuperating from physical and psychological trauma in Jordan. Both animals arrived to the rescue sick and emaciated, but have gained weight and bounced back since. The Associated Press reports that the big cats were coaxed into metal shipping crates with mouthfuls of meat on Sunday and flew from Amman to Johannesburg, via Qatar.
According to the AP, two-year-old Saeed has improved to the point of enjoying play time with his lead trainer, Saif Rwashdeh, as well as approaching people for head scratches.
“He’s a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, he loves the interaction,” said Diana Bernas, the head animal keeper. “He’s a perfect lion.”
Currently, Rwashdeh is traveling with the lions to Johannesburg and plans to stay with them for two weeks to help with their transitional adjustment period. Apparently both cats are the perfect age for socialization and in need of interaction with larger groups of lions. Luckily, their new home of Lionsrock features 80 to 90 big cats.
According to PBS, the sanctuary’s current lions come from a German circus, as well as zoos in France, Romania, Congo and beyond. Other cats hail from captive-bred lion operations in South Africa which often earmark them for trophy killings by big game hunters and tourists. Fiona Miles, director of Four Paws’ South Africa operation, told PBS that some of the captive-bred residents of Lionsrock have deformities due to inbreeding, and none can safely be released into the wild.
Although Simba and Saeed will not roam the plains of Kruger National Park, rescuers know their sanctuary destination is the right place for the animals.
“It is bittersweet,” said Bernas, “but we knew [Saeed] was only going to be here temporarily, so we are happy he’s going to the African sun.”