Romanian zoo lion at center of South African controversy

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Frida the Lion Cub

Date : 11 March 2007
Producer : Hein Ungerer
Presenter : John Webb
Genre : Wildlife and Animals

Playful as it may be, this is not your ordinary house kitten! This young lion is called “Frida”. What’s unusual about her is that she was rescued from certain death from a zoo where she was found only hours after her birth, covered in dirt.

Frida was lucky because the people who found her fell in love with her immediately. And for the next six months, she lived in a home filled with caring and compassion. But the sad thing about lion cubs is that they grow up and then they need more than an apartment and caring people. As she grew, Frida’s owners realised that they would have to find a new home for her soon.

So not long afterwards there was a farewell party with a difference.

The people who were saying goodbye were sad that she was leaving but also glad that they had found a safe place for her to live. A place they thought was going to give Frida back her freedom.

John Webb (Carte Blanche Presenter): “Frida’s story begins in Romania where she was born and thanks to the wonders of modern technology we are able to speak to the people who rescued her and those responsible for her move to South Africa.”

Tudor Musat is the General Manager of the radio station that initially bought Frida.

Tudor Musat (General Manager: Radio Total): “Radio Total bought the lion cub from a Romanian zoo where she was meant to die because they had no means to support the lion cub. We bought Frida, we raised her here in our own homes.”

But Frida was growing fast and there was an urgent need to send her to a sanctuary. Radio Total entrusted this task to Vier Pfoten in Romania, an organisation that’s well known in European animal welfare circles. They undertook to place Frida in a sanctuary where she could live out the rest of her life.

Vier Pfoten then approached Ken Heuer, a South African, who has been involved with large predators for many years. Vier Pfoten knew Ken because they had already sent him four lions a few years earlier.

But this is where the wheels started coming off. Ken had difficulty finding a suitable sanctuary that would take Frida.

Ken Heuer (Great Cats of Africa): “The problem was nobody wanted Frida. People are very reluctant to take single lions because the integration of that lion with another set of lions is very difficult. It takes time and this is where the problems come in.”

In the end Ken says, his only option was a lion farm called Camorhi where they bred lions for canned hunting.

John: “So Camorhi was raising lions specifically for the canned lion hunting industry?”

Ken: “Very definitely. Yes. Very definitely.”

To ensure Frida’s safety Ken got a written assurance from the owners that they would not breed with or hunt Frida. But when the Romanians learnt about Camorhi, they were up in arms. They wanted Frida moved immediately.

Gabi Savu is the person who looked after Frida in Bucharest. She did an internet search on Camorhi and she was horrified. She felt Vier Pfoten had let Frida down.

Gabi Savu (Frida’s Rescuer): “We don’t trust Vier Pfoten. Camorhi as a destination was completely unsuitable. Something an animal welfare organisation should have known.”

And according to Ken, he had informed Vier Pfoten where Frida was going.

Ken: “They knew it even before she left Romania, so nobody can say we didn’t know that this was going to happen. They knew right from day dot.”

So on 5 December 2005, Frida left a loving and caring home in Bucharest and found herself literally dumped into a lions’ den. Frida’s new home, Camorhi, was a typical lion breeding farm. From farms like this, across the country, thousands of lions have been taken and shot.

The most sought after animals usually being the large males with big manes. These two lions, Mfasa and Simba, were, according to an employee at Camorhi, killed in 2000.

International hunters pay fortunes to be able to take these lions home as trophies.

Other Camorhi males like this white lion Seun were first used for breeding. But we’re told they too probably got the inevitable bullet when they outlived their breeding usefulness.

Although lions were never shot on Camorhi, they were sold to hunters and killed elsewhere. And getting them to their destinations was never a dignified business. But that’s all in the past now, because this farm is no more.

John: “This was once the lion breeding farm Camorhi and for years it provided lions for the canned hunting industry in South Africa so it’s perhaps fitting that what was once a farm that bred lions to be killed should be turned into a sanctuary for living lions. As you can see the old Camorhi Farm has been renamed. It’s now called Lions Rock.”

And it’s been bought, believe it or not, by the very same Vier Pfoten who sent Frida out to live there. Vier Pfoten now plan to develop a predator sanctuary here. And the man in charge is Amir Khalil, Vier Pfoten’s International Project Manager.

Dr Amir Khalil (Lions Rock): “When Frida was here there was a lot of attention here from the official level, from a lot of persons overseas, interested to know about the fate of Frida and this is the reason we choose this place to change to one real place for animal welfare.”

John: “When you first come here what you immediately see is that some of the fences need to be repaired, some of the enclosures are quite small. You’re saying that’s all going to change?”

Amir: “The fencing is in a very dangerous situation. A lion can escape easily from this, visitors are in danger … so the first step we need now temporary more secure places, and I hope within the next three months we have the new enclosures ready.”

With Vier Pfoten now having bought Camorhi, and their plans to build a first class lions’ sanctuary underway, we asked Radio Total whether they still wanted Frida moved.

Tudor: “Yes we still want her to be moved because we don’t trust Vier Pfoten. They have done nothing in the past year-and-a-half, they kept hesitating, they kept even lying to us you know, by saying we lost ownership. We learnt about incidents happening in the past few months, we learnt about visitors being attacked by lions.”

The attack that Tudor is referring to was on Jani Spies. She had the unfortunate experience of being mauled by Frida just prior to Vier Pfoten taking over.

Jani Spies (Lion Attack Victim): “I saw the female lion coming up and rubbing against the fence and purring, so I put my hand against the fence and she turned around and took my finger in her mouth, and then I though okay, it’s fine, I’ll be able take it out, a bit of panic, and then suddenly it just happened, she just pulled my arm through and jerked it through and put her claws into my arm and started tearing open my flesh.”

It took 200 stitches to close Jani’s arm up again.

John: “The new owners of what is now Lions Rock inherited a facility in sharp decline, some of the cages are far too small and many of the fences are in a state of disrepair, but according to Amir that’s all about to change.”

There are plans to build a series of enclosures that will operate as separate units – each comprises five sections.

Amir Khalil took over Camorhi from the Prinsloos on 1 November last year, he managed to buy only 25 of the original 40 lions on the property, one Bengal tiger, two wild dogs, two leopards, as well as an assortment of plains antelope.

Amir says that Frida was one of the lions Vier Pfoten bought from Camorhi.

Amir: “Frida in this moment belongs to Lions Rock. Frida before was owned by Mr Marius Prinsloo, who is the ex-owner, and with the new permission that we get, we get all the 25 lions on this farm on the name of Lions Rock.”

This is a claim denied by Gabi in Bucharest.

Gabi: “Camorhi was never the owner of Frida. Never. And the Prinsloo family acknowledged that. We have a written letter from Maryn Prinsloo for acknowledging that Radio Total is the owner of Frida.”

Since taking over, Amir has made some changes to the enclosures, increasing the height and improving electrification. But he says these are only temporary measures because Vier Pfoten plans to build new enclosures for the animals.

But despite this Gabi and Tudor have already selected a new home for Frida, the Drakenstein Lion Park in the Western Cape. Paul Hart is the man in charge here and they have been open for nine years. Paul says it’s a lifetime care facility for lions – his oldest resident is 17. Paul says Frida’s enclosure is ready.

Paul Hart (Drakenstein Lion Park): “We’ve been waiting for it to happen for the last 15 months and we remain ever optimistic and hopefully the matter can be resolved soon.”

But there’s another complication now. Frida has made a friend at Lions Rock and his name is Lerata.

John: “Gabi, if Frida is moved to Drakenstein, will you insist that Lerata is moved with her?”

Gabi: “I think it will be better for both of them. I wish Frida would be moved with Lerata.”

John: “And if Lerata can’t be moved to Drakenstein will you still insist that Frida is moved?”

Gabi: “Yes. Absolutely.”

Paul: “It’s not the ideal situation because Frida has bonded with the young male but if that’s what eventually does transpire we will have no problem in finding a young male in need of a good home to be a companion for Frida.”

The story of young Frida is not over yet. The next step we have been told is litigation. She’s come a long way from where she was born in Bucharest. The question now is whether she’ll stay at Lions Rock or move on to a new home at Drakenstein. Display.asp?Id=3267

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