As a local staff member from the Dutch embassy in Iraq trawled Baghdad's animal market in mid-December, looking for a female peacock for the gardens of their diplomatic compound, he made a disturbing discovery: a caged lion.
The embassy official found the one-and-half year old animal on a busy street in the Iraqi capital surrounded by dogs, baboons and cats.
A video filmed by the local worker and shared online shows the young lion, now named Simba, with his back against the wall of a narrow cage, snarling faintly at onlookers.
Disturbed by the state of the animal, the members of the Dutch embassy set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the big cat's release, dubbed "Operation Simba".
"He does not receive enough food and is traumatised by his environment. When we visited the lion, he was scared by all the noise and sat in the corner of his little cage," they wrote on the page.
The Dutch officials overseeing the page have called for donations to help "set this beautiful lion free and give him a future in nature" at a Dutch lion sanctuary known as Stichting Leeuw located in the northern Netherlands. The European country's embassy in Iraq and a Dutch Defence Ministry spokesperson confirmed to The National that they are assisting efforts to rehome Simba.
The online initiative aims to raise €8,000 (Dh33,000) in total to secure Simba’s release to the sanctuary – €6,000 (Dh25,000) for the team at Stichting Leeuw to fund Simba’s recovery needs and €2,000 (Dh8,500) for his food.
Simba is living on a diet of chicken, but needs around 9kg of red meat a day, a Dutch embassy official, who requested anonymity, told The National.
The total amount raised through the crowdfund stands at just under €2,000 as of Tuesday.
“We received a phone call from officials in the Dutch Embassy in Baghdad saying that they went to buy a peacock and found a lion locked up in a small cage in a busy marketplace in Baghdad,” said Robert Kruijff, director of Stichting Leeuw.
"We are awaiting to get approval from the authorities to go to Baghdad and bring the lion back to our foundation in the Netherlands.”
Iraqi police intervened in the case on behalf of a request from the Dutch embassy, said an embassy official. Whether the lion was being held or marketed for sale illegally remains unknown.
Simba was moved without payment from his cramped cage to a temporary secret location that cannot be disclosed for security reasons, while negotiations over his rehousing continues, said the official.
“He is safe.”
If the fundraising target is reached, Simba will be looked after by Stichting Leeuw and transported to the Netherlands by the Dutch Ministry of Defence, which will cover the costs, according to Mr Kruijff. That brought the crowdfunding target down from €36,000 to €8,000.
Any remaining money will be allocated to Stichting Leeuw’s rescue centre for big cats.
If Iraqi officials grant the Dutch government permission to relocate Simba, Mr Kruijff and his team will travel to Baghdad, bring him back to health before sedating and transport him to the Netherlands in a crate.
The centre will then work to rehabilitate Simba before returning him to his natural habitat in Africa. “The lion will stay with us between one and two years where we will give him the idea of being free,” said Mr Kruijff.
In a country plagued by years of conflict, animals have suffered the devastating effects of war.
In February 2017, the two remaining residents of a Mosul animal park were found abandoned in their cages. Much of the private Mosul park, known as Montazh Al Morour, was severely damaged during the battle to retake the northern Iraqi city from ISIS.
Hungry and dirty, Lula the bear and another lion named Simba were rescued by international animal protection agency Four Paws and flown out of Iraq to Jordan for medical help and rehabilitation. They were then resettled at Lion’s Rock, a big cat sanctuary in South Africa, in February last year.
Most of the park's animals, including a lioness, monkeys and rabbits, were killed. Neighbours had fed the animals until the fighting became too fierce for people to leave their homes. Some of the animals escaped, some were killed and others died of starvation.
Marked with scars on his face, Simba has weakened since the team saw him a week before, in spite of his release, and remains stressed, says a post on the GoFundMe page.
Simba will remain in Iraq for another two months.
Transporting exotic animals from Iraq to the Netherlands can be a lengthy process, from six to eight weeks according to Mr Kruijff, as it includes vaccinations, the quarantine of the animal and administration for its release.
But both Iraqi and Dutch officials say they are working to accelerate the process. Iraqi officials are working "as quickly as possible" to get the lion to his foundation Mr Kruijff said.
For now, Simba will be able to rest , while the release papers wait to clear and the crowdfunding continues.
“Small success!” the Dutch official wrote on the campaign page.