A lion cub carefully steps out of a container and into a temporary enclosure at the Lions Rock Big Cat Sanctuary outside Bethlehem, South Africa, on Saturday.
BETHLEHEM, South Africa - The wide-eyed lion cub inched slowly to the edge of the wooden crate. He stared around him, then with a growl from the older cub behind him, he leapt out onto the grass.
They were among nine cubs, along with an adult lion and a tiger, rescued from bleak Romanian zoos and released Saturday into their new home — a sanctuary in South Africa that was once a notorious game lodge where lions were bred to be hunted.
When another of the crates was opened, the cubs disappeared inside but came out again, rolling and playing with two other young lions.
From the third and fourth crates came more frightened cubs who looked suspiciously around them, their bodies crouched low and ready to pounce.
Sticking close to each other, the cubs sniffed the grass, the air and after a while began purring loudly, finally safe from harm.
"It is wonderful to see these animals take their first steps on African soil," said Amir Khalil, director of Lionsrock, which was established by Austrian-based international animal welfare organization Vier Pfoten (Four Paws).
Lodge for lions
The latest arrivals brings to 46 the number of lions at the 2,720-acre sanctuary, which was once Camorhi Game Lodge, where lions, especially rare white ones, were bred for hunting.
In 2006, the organization bought the game lodge, including 25 lions, one tiger, two leopards and a host of buck. Another 11 lions were rescued in November from a safari park in Austria that had gone bankrupt and the sanctuary was officially opened in February.
"The new habitat is a really perfect place for them to live out their lives with the peace and dignity they deserve," Khalil said.
The cubs that arrived Saturday, aged from six months to just over a year, were removed from their mothers at the run-down, financially crippled Braila Zoo in Romania.
"They could have died from neglect or sold on to individuals and put into small cages," Fiona Miles, operational director for Vier Pfoten in South Africa. "Their fate was unknown."
In Romania, the cubs were kept in small cages with concrete floors and metal bars. They had very little bedding and no grass, and were fed and watered to a minimum with little stimulation.
Jazz, the adult lion will be reunited with his mate Mavi, while Aline, an 11-month-old female tiger, who was found badly injured shortly after birth, will become a companion for Coda, the 2-year-old male tiger already at Lionsrock.
Miles said the animals were suffering from malnutrition and neglect when they were rescued, but their conditions have quickly improved. Aline was kept in a 43-square-foot cage.
"When we were sent pictures of them, we were saddened and shocked," she said, tears welling in her eyes as she watched the cubs playing with each other. "To see them like this — healthy and well — leaves me speechless."
Vier Pfoten does not buy the animals. Instead, the organization convinces the zoos to release them into their care.
The big cats arrived in Johannesburg from Frankfurt on Friday and were then transported the 155 miles to Bethlehem, in the central Free State province.
South Africa is famous as home to the "Big Five" animals — the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo. The country's flagship Kruger National Park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Some 9,000 privately owned game farms and other government-run reserves also offer visitors a taste of the wild.
But South Africa also has become a choice destination for gun-toting tourists willing to pay more than $20,000 to take home a prized "trophy" in the form of a lion or rhino's head.
New laws have clamped down on big-game hunting in South Africa in an attempt to clean up the industry and restore the principle of fair chase to the country's tarnished hunting industry.
Growing need for sanctuaries
With breeders warning that they may be forced to put down an estimated 3,000-5,000 lions because of the restrictions, Vier Pfoten, which has set up similar sanctuaries for circus bears in Europe, began trying to alleviate the plight of predators in South Africa.
Jerome Delay / AP
Lion cubs play after being released into a temporary enclosure at the Lions Rock Big Cat Sanctuary outside Bethlehem, South Africa on Saturday.
There has also been a 47 percent increase in the number of births among the buck at the reserve since hunting has stopped and the animals are less stressed.
"Before they would see a vehicle and run like hell," park ranger Tienie Van Rooyen said. "But now they have settled down."
For visitors, Lionsrock offers a unique opportunity to get close to big cats in a breathtaking setting.
The lodge, with its wooden deck and chalets, is set up on a cliff side with a panoramic view of the plains below. Towering above is the rocky mountain whose shape resembles a brooding lion.
A colorful catwalk allows visitors to gaze down on the lions as they pad about their enclosures or slumber in the sun.
At night, the air is filled with the sound of the lions roaring. Now there are 10 more voices to be heard.
Rescued lions join African sanctuary - World environment - MSNBC.com