Actresses to accompany Simba the lion on his epic journey to Africa

Simba at French circus
Simba at French circus

Yesterday (February 20) international wildlife charity, the Born Free Foundation, and The Natuurhulpcentrum (Wildlife Rescue Centre) announced that Simba the lion’s epic journey to Africa had started, accompanied by Bafta award-winning actress Virginia McKenna OBE and Coronation Street favourite Helen Worth.

The uplifting story of Simba has captured the hearts and imagination of people across the world and, with the relocation firmly underway, it brings the tragic story of this magnificent lion to a new and exciting chapter.

Simba in Belgium

Simba in Belgium

From the confines of a zoo cage to the beast wagon of an animal trainer, Simba finally embarks on the 4,900 mile journey to the Born Free-supported Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi.

The expert relocation team and sanctuary staff, headed up by senior wildlife vet Stef Michels and Born Free’s Big Cat expert Tony Wiles, met early this morning and gently encouraged Simba into his travelling crate in preparation for his 4 hour journey to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

Stef said, “We were hopeful that Simba would respond and voluntarily enter the crate and, with his familiar carers around him, it all went to plan. So far he has had a smooth journey, which he is taking well and we are very pleased with his progress.”

Star of Coronation Street and long term ambassador for Born Free, Helen Worth, was on hand to lend her support and witness proceedings. Helen said, “This is the first time I have met Simba and what a beautiful animal he is. It is a disgrace that in modern Europe such neglect of wild animals can still be found. I am delighted that I can be part of this operation that is running so smoothly and will take Simba to a new secure home with lifetime care.”

Simba was six months old when he entered the French zoo, Parc Zoologique du Bouy, and only two months later he was then acquired by an animal trainer in Vernay. Here, poor Simba’s home was a ‘beast wagon’ – nothing more than a lorry trailer and sometimes the use of a small outside run. Thankfully though, matters were about to change for Simba when the French Authorities stepped in and ordered that Simba be handed over. At the end of 2012, thanks to a concerted effort by Fondation 30 Millions d’Amis, a French NGO, and the Natuurhulpcentrum Opglabbeek, Simba had a temporary new home in Belgium and following discussions with Born Free last year the plan was hatched to move Simba to Africa.

Sil Janssen, Founder and chairman of the Natuurhulpcentrum said: “Every time we release an animal or send it off to a new and better home, it is a great day for the Natuurhulpcentrum. This is what we work and strive for. We know that Simba will be in good hands with Born Free Foundation and the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre.”

The move to relocate Simba has been a great team effort with sponsorship and support of the transportation courtesy of Born Free’s Global conservation partner Land Rover and Kenya Airways, ‘The Pride of Africa’, generously providing the flights.

As Simba’s IATA-approved crate was loaded onto a trailer, the convoy headed up with the pulling power of the 6-strong convoy of Land Rover Discovery cars set off on their journey.

Mark Cameron, Land Rover Global Brand Experience Director, said, “Over the past decade Land Rover has enjoyed a successful and rewarding partnership with the Born Free Foundation and I am therefore delighted that our Land Rover Experience team have been able to help with the safe relocation of Simba from Belgium to Malawi. Born Free has worked tirelessly to ensure Simba enjoys the rest of his life in his new home and I am very proud that through the towing capability of our vehicles and the expertise of our Land Rover Experience drive team we can help this become a reality.”

On arrival at Schiphol, Simba will be taken into the animal quarantine centre before boarding the Kenya Airways 767 aircraft, under the careful supervision of the ground staff. Simba’s flight to Malawi will have a short touchdown in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport whilst enroute to Lilongwe.

Kenya Airways Group Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Titus Naikuni, noted that, “The initiative is part of the airline’s partnership with the Born Free Foundation towards supporting wildlife conservation by rescuing endangered animals and restoring them to their natural habitats. Wildlife is our heritage, and its conservation and protection is the responsibility of all of us. Therefore, I find this an amazing example of how we can connect across the globe to protect endangered wildlife for their return and long-term survival in their natural habitats.”

At Nairobi, Simba will be met by the symbol of lions herself the Born Free actress and founder of the Born Free Foundation, Virginia McKenna OBE, who will join the team and personally be making the journey to welcome Simba into his new home.

Virginia said, “How wonderful to have a ‘good news’ animal story! In contrast to the seemingly endless negative and tragic ones that have filled the media in recent weeks. Yes, it is about one animal, one individual, but all of them matter and Simba, having initially been taken in by a Belgian Rescue centre from an animal trainer in France, is now to begin his final journey to Africa, his rightful homeland. The public’s generous response to his situation has been quite amazing. Indeed, people are increasingly aware of how wild animals can be exploited and can suffer, and perhaps long to be a part of a caring and positive story.”

Virginia concluded, “I am very happy, and fortunate, to be accompanying Simba to his new home in Malawi, where I know he will be beautifully cared for, living the rest of his life in a natural bush enclosure – a stark contrast to the circus wagon and barren “exercise” pen in France. And perhaps, eventually, he will be introduced to beautiful Bella, the one-eyed lioness we brought there 5 years ago. That would be a happy ending!”

In time there are plans to introduce Simba to a lioness named Bella who was rescued by Born Free from a Romanian zoo and now lives at the Lilongwe Wildlife Sanctuary in Malawi.

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Report and pictures contributed by the Born Free Foundation.