Purchased as status symbols, then abandoned when no longer wanted, six young lions rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in Kuwait have been flown to a new life at the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary, South Africa.

The lions – males Muheeb, Saham, Shujaa, Saif, and females Dhubiya and Aziza – were all recaptured after being dumped by owners in the streets of Kuwait City or the surrounding desert, where it is illegal to have them as pets. The young lions were recaptured by staff and volunteers at Kuwait Zoo, after they were advised by authorities.

Animal Defenders International (ADI) offered a home at their 455-acre ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa. Two young cubs, Dhubiya and Saif, were found abandoned in the desert to starve.

They were nursed back to health at the Zoo and today are playing and basking in the sunshine, home in Africa. A special cargo flight was donated for the mercy mission by Qatar Airways Cargo as part of their WeQare scheme, which took the lions from Kuwait to Qatar and then South Africa.

Throughout the relocation operation, renowned wildlife veterinarian Dr Peter Caldwell monitored the lions, including during their sedation for loading into travel crates. During the flight the lions were fed and watered by ADI’s Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips.

The lions were initially let into their night houses at the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in Free State and have now been released into quarantine enclosures where they are playing with catnip punchbags and giant balls. After two weeks in quarantine, they will be released into individual large natural enclosures of up to 4 acres.

Known as the “Kuwait 6”, the young lions symbolise an illicit, global trade which is now being boosted through irresponsible social media posts featuring people petting and ‘playing’ with big cats. In this cruel business, babies are taken from their mothers when young and cute, leaving them lonely and dependent on their captor for food and attention for life.

The animals are often kept in isolation and in inappropriate conditions including being chained or caged in basements. Used as status symbols, these magnificent, intelligent, emotional animals can live for 20 years, but are dumped like a fashion accessory once the owner has tired of them.

Many owners realise that as lions grow, they become powerful, expensive to feed and simply expressing themselves naturally can be dangerous and destructive for a human. ADI believes that if action is not taken soon and big cat ownership continues to be promoted as trendy, in a few years, the problem of lions and tigers being discarded around the world could reach epidemic promotions.

Jan Creamer, President of ADI: "The Kuwait 6 lions have their whole lives ahead of them and will have acres of space at the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary.

“The ADI supporters who are helping to fund their care and this rescue are giving these lions their lives back, living as close as possible to the life they lost. This is great news for these lions but also a warning about a cruel and irresponsible trade. “Lions should never be kept as pets; they are wild animals. ADI is grateful to the authorities in Kuwait for action to try and halt this illegal trade, to Kuwait Zoo for providing a safe haven for the lions, to Qatar Airways Cargo for helping bring them home, and to the ADI supporters funding the care of these animals.” Mark Drusch, Chief Officer Cargo at Qatar Airways Cargo: “We are proud to once again be supporting ADI, this time in bringing these six beautiful lions home to Africa.

“Our WeQare Rewild the Planet initiative is our commitment to returning wildlife and endangered species back to their natural habitat, free of charge. It takes a lot of effort and logistics for our team to organise moving such large animals, but it is something we are all collectively very proud and passionate to be a part of.”

Alzahra Aljanabi, Senior Translator, Animal Welfare Department, Public Authority of Agricultural Affairs and Fish Resources said: “The Public Authority of Agriculture and Fish Resources and Kuwait Zoo would like to thank the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary for their support and efforts in providing a better habitat for the six lions from Kuwait.

“We are also thankful for Qatar Airways Cargo for funding the flight, Royal Animal Hospital, Bahman International Cargo, Kuwait Zoo staff and Leila (@bfgkuwait). People underestimate the risks of having wild animals as pets.

“They may be magnificent creatures, but they are also predators. We need more awareness to combat wildlife trafficking”.

Jan Creamer added: “Seeing these lions playing as they start their new lives at the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary is magical and we are excited to see them start to explore their large habitats.

“It is also a reminder of how much work needs to be done to stop the suffering of others like them and to defeat the wildlife traffickers. I hope that people will join ADI as we work for that goal.”