8 Big Cats Rescued From Circuses Arrive At Wildlife Sanctuaries In South Africa

Two separate rescue operations have resulted in the animals finding refuge away from the exploitative entertainment industry


3 Minutes Read

Tiger in nature Tiger populations are alarmingly low, but animal protection charities are working to preserve the species. - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

Four lions and four tigers have arrived safely at wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa. There, the big cats will live out the rest of their lives – a far cry from their earlier years, which were spent in traveling circuses. 

A family of Bengal tigers called Messi, Sandro, Mafalda, and Gustavo lived in a metal train carriage for more than 15 years before they were rescued. 

A traveling circus abandoned a now 18-year-old male and 15-year-old female tiger in San Luis, Argentina, in 2007. A local farmer agreed to look after the pair for a temporary period, but the circus never returned.

The tigers eventually had two cubs, and the family of four lived in captivity for years.

Now, the animals reside at LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary in Bethlehem, South Africa. The facility, home to more than 100 big cats, is a project of FOUR PAWS, a global animal protection organization.

“The train carriage was filthy with excrements and leftover meat and bones for a long time but fortunately this is not the case anymore,” said FOUR PAWS veterinarian Dr Amir Khalil, who led the rescue mission.


“Tigers need to move, run, play, and bathe. Being locked in a 75m² train carriage and only pacing back and forth for 15 years is not a tiger-worthy life. All those years in such a small space have affected their mental and physical wellbeing for sure.”

There are just 3,900 tigers left in the wild today, FOUR PAWS says on its website. “Live tigers are shipped across the world to be kept as pets and abused for human entertainment in circuses, zoos or for paid interactions.”

“Tigers and other big cat species are killed for their skin, fur, bones, and teeth,” the organization said.

FOUR PAWS CEO Josef Pfabigan added: “By rescuing these four tigers in Argentina, we provide a better life for them individually and create awareness for all animals globally to be treated with respect, empathy and understanding.”

Lions freed from French circus

Last month, a similar rescue operation took place in France. The Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife charity, orchestrated the rescue of four lions who had been forced to perform in a traveling circus.

A circus owner surrendered the animals – Angela, Bellone, Louga, and Saïda – in 2018. Now, after years of pandemic-related delays, the cats have completed the 9,000-mile journey to their new home. 

Growing up in captivity has rendered the animals unfit for being released into the wild, Born Free says. And so, Shamwari Reserve, located in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, took the big cats in.

It’s “the next best thing to the wild,” Born Free maintains.

“Born into captivity, they were each sold as cubs from one French circus to another, and for years they were constantly on the move, forced to perform unnatural tricks in front of noisy crowds – music blaring, lights flashing, the organization explains. “Their only home was a rusty trailer, with barely room to turn around.”

According to Born Free, it was a “miserable, deprived existence.”

Catherine Gillson, Born Free Manager at the Shamwari Reserve, said in a statement: “We have a large natural bush enclosure with space the size of possibly two rugby fields for them, space that they have never experienced in their life, with natural vegetation, with the sights and sounds and smells of Africa.”

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