British Army veterans have led a daring rescue mission to save nine lions from a Ukrainian zoo in the biggest feline extraction from a war zone.
Animal rescue groups Breaking the chains and Wildlife Warriors traveled to the war-torn Black Sea port of Odessa on Monday.
The mission was conceived by South African animal advocate Lionel de Lange, founder of Warriors of Wildlife, who teamed up with Britons Gemma Campling, director of Worldwide Vets, and Tom, founder of Breaking the Chains and veteran of the British Army.
Tom, whose last name is not used for security reasons, leads a team of former British Army soldiers as well as members from the United States and Canada.
In 72 hours, the group traveled thousands of miles across three borders to perform a lion-hearted big cat extraction.
The nine lions faced starvation at their home in Biopark, Odessa, where meat supplies were dangerously low due to the war.
And if Russian missiles rained down on the city damaging the animal enclosures, civilians would be at serious risk from the large carnivores roaming free.
Despite the real risk of death from above, the brave men and women of the rescue team knew now was the time to get the animals out.
And after a remarkable display of teamwork and determination, the nine lions, two adult males, five females and a male and female cub, were safely taken to their new temporary home in Romania on Wednesday.
South African army veteran De Lange said the end goal is to fly all the lions to a new life, potentially in South Africa at Simbonga Game Reserve, or a wildlife sanctuary in the United States. United.
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He thanked supporters who had helped raise thousands of rand for the mission to cover fuel, vet and security costs.
De Lange said: “This was an international operation and it was great to work with other people who are keen to do this incredible work. I hope we can go back under Russian noses and save more animals together in the future.
“It’s great for me to get any animal out of a bad situation, but I guess for me, as someone who lived in Ukraine, it was very special.
“The future for the lions was very bleak staying in Odessa because the writing is on the wall and it looks like the end of the war will not be imminent.
“But even though there are people like me, Tom and Gemma and the amazing people we work with who have supported us, none of these animals will be left behind.”
Breaking the Chains founder Tom, 34, from Yorkshire, served 18 years in the British Army and his team members included more veterans like former comrade Gaz and ex-soldiers Steve and TJ.
Tom was medically discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder and credits his recovery to his dog Gypsie, a former military search dog, who he says saved him.
He said: “It was an animal that saved my life. I understand the true beauty and value of animals and wanted to make sure I could save their lives, which is why we are in Ukraine.
“My ground crew is made up of veterans, so those are the guys who go to active conflict areas and when I say active areas, those are places under Russian offensive with ground troops.
“These are the conflict zones in which we operate.
“We also have volunteers who are people who have come here to watch the animals. We had two volunteers with us for this mission, but the ground crew is mostly veterans.
Tom said that as soon as Lionel informed him of the fate of the lions in Odessa, he knew his unit could help him. He said: “It was a lot of equipment and a lot of manpower, so straight away when I got the call I said, ‘Sure, no dramas, just tell me when “.
“We had bombs falling pretty much at our feet on several occasions while extracting animals in Ukraine, so we knew we could help with this mission.” The convoy included a massive military wagon driven from the UK by Tom’s team along with 4×4 support vehicles. Heavy-duty cages, makeshift stretchers and climbing gear were also needed to secure their precious cargo.
He said: “The vet, Gemma, was phenomenal and Lionel was brilliant with the role he played and my team were fantastic throughout as they always are.
The other veterans with me, Gaz and Steve; I served with Gaz for 18 years and he loves animals and told me of his friendship. Same with Steve. TJ fell in love with what we do and why we do it.
They love all animals and see what we are trying to do. “Just spending time with the lions as we had them in the vehicles and waiting at the borders was amazing.
“You just have enough time to form that small but beautiful bond. The beauty of animals is that they will learn to trust you, not so much that you can walk into the cage with them, but enough to relax and understand that you are not a threat.
Donations finance the whole operation and others are planned.