Joe and I just returned from Lionsrock, a wildlife sanctuary about three hours from Joburg near the town of Bethlehem. Lionsrock is a haven for mistreated animals — mostly big cats – rescued from zoos and circuses around the world.

Lionsrock, which is a lodge for vacationing humans as well as a sanctuary for retired cats, was founded three years ago by Four Paws (Vier Pfoten), a Vienna-based organization devoted to alleviating animal suffering.

Lionsrock residents.

Four Paws invited members of the media to Lionsrock to witness the arrival of Martin, an 8-year-old Bengal tiger, and Bagira, a 15-year-old lioness. Martin and Bagira were rescued from zoos in Bulgaria and traveled more than two days by air and road to reach their new South African home.

We arrived at Lionsrock a couple of hours before Martin and Bagira, so we had time to take in the scenery at the lodge. Lionsrock is in South Africa’s rural Free State Province, perched below a large rock outcropping and overlooking a grassy plain. We relaxed on the terrace and watched a herd of ostriches frolicking in the distance. I strolled around and looked at the accommodations.

A cabin at Lionsrock’s lodge. It’s a nice destination for a weekend away from Joburg, or a stopover if you’re traveling between Joburg and Durban. The rate is reasonable at R350 per person, per night. Profits help support the animals at Lionsrock.

Finally we heard that Martin and Bagira were about to arrive. We piled into a safari vehicle with a motley crew of Four Paws staff members, journalists, and Lionsrock guests, and took off down the muddy dirt road toward the cat enclosures. (By the way, the guests included Princess Alia Al Hussein of Jordan. The Princess is an animal rights activist and came to Lionsrock earlier in the week to accompany some rescued big cats from Jordan. I didn’t take any photos of her because I thought that would be weird.)

When we arrived at the lion enclosure, the lions came out to greet us. The staff at Lionsrock interact with the animals as minimally as possible. But the lions are used to people and curious about visitors.

I’ve watched lions in zoos and I’ve watched them in the wild. But this was different — it felt like the lions were watching ME.

A Four Paws vet asked us to gather round and told us that Bagira had had a difficult trip. She is an old lion and wasn’t completely healthy when her journey began. To minimize the stress on Bagira, she would be released into an indoor enclosure rather than an outdoor area as originally planned. Only media and Four Paws staff would be allowed inside.

I watched the team lift Bagira’s crate from the back of the truck and slowly ease it inside. Joe stormed in behind them but I hesitated. I was a little afraid of what I’d see inside.

What I did see what heartbreaking.

Bagira, who didn’t make a sound as her crate was carried and opened, edges the front of her body into her temporary enclosure. She looked terrified and frail.

I later spoke to Helmut Dungler, the founder of Four Paws, about the deplorable conditions he found Bagira in six months ago, at a private zoo Bulgaria. “She was laying in her own urine,” Helmut said. “She was an old, forgotten lion.”

At least now Bagira has the chance to live the rest of her life in comfort, and the big cat section of the zoo where she was found has been closed. Seeing Bagira as she looked yesterday, it was hard to imagine how she survived the journey at all. But Lionsrock has never lost an animal during a move. If history is any indication, Bagira will make it.

Martin was next. Helmut drove us to a lot where the tiger’s crate was parked. We’d been warned that Martin was a bit “angry,” which is to be expected for a 250-kilogram (550-pound) animal who’s just traveled 8,000 kilometers.

The sounds emanating from Martin’s crate are difficult to describe. I’ve heard tigers growl before, on TV and at the zoo (and maybe at the circus when I was five). But this was louder and a lot more real.

The truck drove Martin around the bend to his temporary enclosure. The Four Paws staff hoisted the crate down. The fences were checked and double-checked. Joe and I and the other journalists positioned ourselves on the far side of the enclosure so we had a head-on view of Martin’s release.

I pressed my camera lens against the fence and held my finger on the shutter. I barely breathed.

Martin’s first taste of freedom (sort of). He didn’t care much about being free at that moment though.

This cat was seriously hacked off.

Martin stalked around his cage for a while, half growling and half roaring. We watched, transfixed. He moved through a doorway into an adjacent enclosure. Joe crept closer to get a better shot and Spokes, a camerman for Reuters, followed. Martin payed them no attention, at first.

At this point, Martin has seen Joe and Spokes. He’s not happy with what he sees.

I’ll let you imagine what took place in the ten seconds that transpired between these two photos. Joe and Spokes were never in any danger and neither was Martin. We all experienced a bit of an adrenaline rush though. At this point the vets decided it was best to leave Martin alone.

The bottom line is that Martin has a healthy temper. I see this as a good thing. Hopefully his tranquil new home will provide him with some natural anger management.

We made our way back to the lodge and enjoyed a braai under the stars.

Guests enjoy pre-dinner drinks on the terrace at Lionsrock.

I’ll be keeping tabs on Martin and Bagira for the next few months.

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