Etihad Airways flies four wild cats to new homes in South Africa

The servals are the first to travel via the airline's newly launched Forever Home service, which transports rescue animals and endangered species

The four African servals from Belgium have found their forever home in Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa. Photo: Etihad Airways
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Etihad Airways has been busy transporting some extra special cargo this week as part of the airline's new Forever Home service.

Four African servals landed safely in South Africa on Monday, marking Etihad Cargo's first official operation under its new animal welfare commitment.

Rescued after being kept illegally as pets in Belgium, the big cats made the journey from Brussels to Johannesburg Airport, safely transported in crates inside climate-controlled conditions onboard an Etihad flight.

After being checked by a local veterinarian, the cats were cleared for the final leg of their journey and arrived at Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary in Stanford on Tuesday morning, where they were calmly released into their new forever homes.

The effort brings to an end a two-year collaboration between Natuurhulpcentrum rescue centre in Belgium, the Born Free Foundation and Panthera Africa, with Etihad Aviation Group sponsoring transportation.

“Etihad Cargo is pleased that the movement of the servals was the first booking to be made using the Forever Home policy. The safety and the well-being of animals transported on Etihad is vital,” said Martin Drew, senior vice president of sales and cargo at Etihad Aviation Group.

The big cats are back home in Africa

Named after the cities in which they were found — Kinrooi, Mechelen, Roeselare and Diepenbeek — the cats are native to Africa. They will now live as residents in the Born Free Rescue Section at Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary.

“We have been waiting for the servals' arrival for nearly two years and the global pandemic has kept us from relocating these beautiful cats to our sanctuary,” said Lizaene Cornwall-Nyquist, co-founder of Panthera Africa.

“We are very excited to welcome them — both for them to be back in Africa and have a peaceful natural home to live in, and also for us as these are the first servals that will be joining our pride."

The Born Free Foundation funded the animals' four new purpose-built enclosures.

“It is extraordinary to think that in 2022, we are needing to rescue and relocate servals, an African wildcat, from the European pet trade back to their ancestral home,” said Andrea Donaldson, from the foundation.

“Everyone at Born Free is extremely grateful to Etihad Airways who looked after our servals in flight on their journey to South Africa and we know they will live their best possible life given their unhappy story so far, in the care of Panthera Africa.”

What is Etihad Cargo's Forever Home?

The airline's Forever Home policy builds on Etihad Cargo’s existing animal welfare and conservation policy by offering specialised transportation and discounted cargo rates for rescue and endangered animals. Typically, organisations using the service will pay 75 per cent less than standard rates.

“As one of the first airlines to sign the United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce Declaration, Etihad Cargo has a strong track record in animal welfare,” said Drew.

“Forever Home expands that commitment to cover all animals — whether they are pets, racehorses, or exotic species. All rescue requests will be subject to due diligence and, if approved, the rescue organisations or individuals can be assured of specialised animal transportation at the best possible rate.”

The policy covers animals that have been abandoned, seized by authorities, or neglected.

It builds upon the airline's existing animal welfare and conservation policy, which works to help prevent illegal wildlife trade and encourage responsible sustainable tourism.

“Biodiversity protection and conservation is one of our core focus areas alongside decarbonisation and waste management,” said Mariam AlQubaisi, head of sustainability and business excellence at Etihad. "Etihad takes pride in our efforts to combat the illegal transportation of endangered species, and whenever possible, facilitate the repatriation of species to their native ecosystems."

How can rescue organisations use Etihad's Forever Home?

Applications for the Forever Home service are open to rescue organisations located anywhere on Etihad's global network.

To apply, animal welfare groups should email Etihad's sustainability department, which will evaluate the situation and request necessary documents.

Fatema Al Zaabi, founder of Second Wags, an animal rescue organisation in the UAE, welcomed the new policy as a way to help with a process that can often be complicated and costly.

“I think Forever Home is a fabulous idea from Etihad. It is definitely a positive thing for animals in the UAE as unfortunately many animals cannot find homes here due to the amount of abandoned pets and strays around. So being able to find homes overseas and get them there easier gives them a better chance of being adopted.

“I think making the process easier for everyone, like it is in many countries in Europe where animals don't have to fly as cargo, would be another step forward and fantastic for everyone. We hope that one day, [the] rules change.”

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Updated: March 17, 2022, 1:00 PM