Simba the lion and a wolf named Akyla have been rescued from a zoo in war-torn Ukraine and brought to safety in Romania.
The animal rights group involved in the operation says the four-day mission was “full of dangers” further hampered by border entry bureaucracy.
Simba, an adult male lion, and the grey wolf, were fully awake during the dangerous journey due to the lack of tranquilisers in Ukraine.
They arrived on Monday at a zoo in Radauti, from Zaporizhzhia in south-east Ukraine.
Now at a safe distance from the conflict, and having spent four days in cages in the back of a van, the two animals are recovering from the journey.
On Wednesday they were settling in to their new enclosure, regaining their strength as they lounged in the shade.
“If there is something this war brought on, it is incredible co-operation between organisations,” said Sebastian Taralunga of Animals International, one of several animal rights groups involved in planning the animals’ extraction.
“Everybody agreed that in extreme times we have to have extreme measures, and we decided to do whatever possible to bring those animals out of war.”
Ukrainians fleeing with their four-legged family
The animals’ rescue was made possible by the efforts of several animal rights groups and private citizens, including two UK men who volunteered to enter Ukraine to rescue the animals and drive them to safety.
“I couldn’t find a driver from Romania to go and help, also not from Ukraine, so these guys were absolutely fabulous – they put their lives in danger,” said Roxana Ciornei, president of the Romania-based animal rights group Casa lui Patrocle. “But they arrived safely here.”
The long journey from Ukraine, a mission fraught with the dangers of entering a war zone, was far from simple.
The van carrying the animals could not secure permission by the authorities to cross through Romania’s Siret border point. This left the drivers no choice but to twice traverse the towering Carpathian Mountains – which arch across the countries’ common border – from west to east, adding nearly 1,000 kilometres to their journey.
“It was a central-level decision that Romania and Ukraine will only have a single border crossing for large animals,” said Gabriel Paun, the EU director at Animals International.
“It was a team of people acting in good faith to do everything they could to rescue those animals,” he said.
“It’s difficult to get people out of Ukraine if they’re in very dangerous areas, but to bring out a lion and a wolf … was mission impossible. I was 50-50 on whether those animals and those people would make it out alive.”
Mr Paun said that they couldn’t find a vet to help with their evacuation mission and that no tranquilisers were available, which meant the animals were “fully aware and awake” through their journey to safety.
“You can imagine what it means to drive with a lion and a wolf in the back of your van with cages that are not very stable and could have opened at any moment,” said Mr Taralunga of Animals International.
He said Simba suffered an injury during transport after hitting himself against the cage, but vets said it was not serious and would heal on its own.
The animals will now spend time in quarantine at their new enclosure and children and other visitors could see them at the zoo, after which they would eventually be transferred to sanctuaries.
“My NGO here runs a shelter of 300 dogs. We have cows, we have horses, but I have never thought in my life that I’d come to rescue a lion and a wolf,” said Ms Ciornei.
“We gathered a lot of people and everybody did something together ... and we succeeded to do this.
“There is a good part in this war in Ukraine, that these animals will go to a better life.”