With a nervous look and on shaky legs, Ruben, known as the world’s loneliest lion, recently took his first step on African soil.
This 15-year-old lion was relocated to the Free State last month after spending the past six years alone in a cramped cage in Armenia.
Ruben was the only animal left in a private zoo after the doors were closed. All the other animals were relocated, but for Ruben there was no new place to live and he even stopped roaring altogether.
Animal Defenders International (ADI), in collaboration with Qatar Airways Cargo’s WeQare charity initiative, transported the king of the jungle over 8,000 km to resettle in the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in the Free State. The game reserve covers around 184 ha and already offers a home to 32 lions and tigers that were rescued earlier.
“With his first step at his new home, his legs wobbled. He was malnourished and also did not get any exercise for several years. However, he forced himself and got out of his travel crate and continued walking. On the same ground where his ancestors walked,” says Jan Creamer, ADI’s president.
At his new home, after years of loneliness, Ruben heard other lions roaring again. And it wasn’t long before Ruben also discovered his own voice again. Although soft at first, the roar now grows louder as Ruben regains his confidence and feels like a lion again.
“He’s basically forgotten what it’s like to be a lion.”
Creamer says lions are the most social member of the big cat species and operate in packs in the wild.
“It must have been terrible for Ruben to have no contact or communication with other lions. To see him walking on grass for the first time, to hear the roar of his own kind, with the African sun on his back, made us all burst into tears,” says Creamer.
Ruben’s happy ending almost did not become a reality; Initially, ADI could not find any suitable flight for him from Armenia.
Thanks to Qatar Airways Cargo’s WeQare charity initiative that intervened and made a larger aircraft available, the relocation was able to take place. The plane’s cargo hold opened wide enough for Ruben’s travel crate to fit inside.
In Qatar, an air-conditioned truck was used to move the big cat between planes in Doha. Creamer and ADI’s vice president, Tim Phillips, accompanied Ruben throughout.
According to Creamer, Ruben’s health was a huge source of concern. “ADI has been funding his care in Armenia since December and when we couldn’t find any flights for him, we were afraid he would be stuck there forever.”
Elisabeth Oudkerk, attached to Qatar Airways’ cargo department, says that when ADI approached the airline with Ruben’s sad story, they immediately knew they had to help.
“There is a lot of logistics involved in moving animals like Ruben: from the logistics at the relevant airports, the process for loading and unloading the animals from the plane, as well as ensuring the correct cages and well-being of the animals. It takes a lot of effort from our team to organize such transport, but we are proud to know that we have helped to give back to our planet,” says Oudkerk.
“We are committed to preserving wildlife and endangered species, which is why we launched a second leg of our WeQare initiative in 2020, called Rewild the Planet. We have pledged to help wildlife and endangered species return to their natural habitat for free and we will continue to do so.”
Determined to walk again
After years of severe malnutrition and no exercise, the abused old lion walks with difficulty. His hind legs rock and crack beneath his body.
Upon his arrival in South Africa, Ruben was sedated and at the Old Chapel veterinary clinic in Pretoria by the wildlife veterinarian dr. Peter Caldwell examines and treats.
A habitat was specially designed for Ruben at ADI’s game reserve in the Free State, with special ramps to platforms and safety rails.
ADI expects that Ruben still has a long road to recovery. But his resilience left everyone at his new home speechless.
“Although his legs were shaky, he got out of his travel crate and immediately started playing with a giant punching bag full of food – his first toy,” says Creamer.
“His whole demeanor changed. His face was relaxed and he no longer looked scared.”
According to Creamer, Ruben’s determination to walk is inspiring. “If he stumbles or falls, he gets up again and then walks on. He is nothing short of heroic.”
Ruben’s gait improved within several days.
“We know it will be a long road and will require continuous veterinary treatment, but the start of his new life could not have been better.”
To contribute to Ruben’s continued care and rehabilitation, click here.