I’ve been waiting to share this news with you for quite some time. A few months ago, IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) asked if we could help Lesya and 3 other lion cubs in war-stricken Ukraine. We knew it would be difficult, but with so many amazing animal warriors on the ground trying to save as many animals as possible, we wanted to do our part.
IFAW reached out to us about Lesya and the cubs because our team is experienced in international big cat translocations, though none during such conflict.
We know with every step forward, there may be three steps back. But seeing the committed individuals on the ground providing rescue and animal care during shelling, sometimes with no electricity or running water, we were determined to help.
Lesya and the other cubs, all younger than four months, arrived safely at the Poznan Zoo in Poland after traveling for 36 hours out of war-torn Ukraine, where they will be cared for until onward transport permits are issued.
They have had a harrowing first few months of life, surviving the recent drone attacks and sporadic bombings in Kyiv. Remembering the first moments caring for Dash, I can imagine how scared the caretakers were for the cubs’ survival.
According to their permits, all of the cubs were surrendered to animal rescue organizations, VetCrew in Odesa and Wild Animal Rescue in Kyiv, after local officials started to enforce laws on the exotic pet trade in Ukraine.
“An estimated 200 lions live in private homes and as the war rages on, they face increasingly grim outcomes,” says Meredith Whitney, Wildlife Rescue Program Manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
We know there are more bumps in the road to come for Lesya and the others, but we committed to the long journey. Both for the animals, but also for the humans who are dedicating themselves to helping each other and the animals during this very difficult time of war. Our hearts are with them all.
We were thrilled to be able to offer these cubs a beautiful, one acre habitat together and hope to welcome them home in the coming months.
TWS is proud to offer a forever home for these soon-to-be big cats and with your help today, we can rescue and care for more big cats in need!
You can help us fund their forever home by sponsoring Lesya, or any of the cubs, today!
Photo credit: © Holly-Marie Cato and Poznan Zoo
Frequently Asked Questions:
Why were the 3 cubs kept separate from the 4th cub in Poland?
Prada, who is 2 months older, was rescued in Kyiv. The 3 cubs were rescued in Odesa. Once they all traveled to the Poznan Zoo in Poland, they were able to slowly get to know each other. They were merged once they arrived to our sanctuary to be able to grow up as a pride.
Why can’t these lions be set free in Africa?
Of course, that would be our preference, too. But these cubs had all been separated from their mother at birth to be raised by humans and sold on the black market. They had already imprinted on humans and saw them as a source of food and comfort. Sadly, they would have little success on their own in the wild. Here at the sanctuary, they will be able to live wild at heart.
Why didn’t the cubs stay in Poland or in Europe?
The Poznan Zoo was merely a waystation. They’ve been taking in as many animals from Ukraine as they could. By placing the animals at sanctuaries, they’re able to rescue more in need. At the time of the cubs’ rescue, zoos and rescue centers across Europe had accepted many lions from Ukraine already and reported their facilities were at capacity.
Where are their mothers?
The 3 cubs had been dropped off at a train station, in a zipped up duffle bag. They, and Prada, were part of the black market trade, selling wild animals as “pets” for profit. Unfortunately, we have no information on where they were bred or where their mothers are.
Lesya, a female lion cub, was only 4 months old when she arrived at the sanctuary in the winter of 2022. After a 7,000-mile journey from war torn Ukraine, she finally found her forever home.
Lesya, her sister Stefania and brother Taras had been abandoned at a train station in Odesa, Ukraine during the war. They were found zipped up in a duffle bag. They’d been part of the exotic pet trade, destined to be sold for a profit after being separated from their mother at such a young age.
Dr. Andrew Kushnir, a U.S. vet volunteering there on the ground in Ukraine, contacted IFAW for assistance. IFAW then reached out to us to see if we could provide a lifelong home for them.
With the help of IFAW and many animal rescuers in Ukraine, the cubs were transported to Kyiv where they met up with another cub named Prada, also abandoned during the war.
With Russia’s increased bombing and drone attacks on Kyiv, it was important to get the cubs to safety fast. They made a 36-hour journey across the border to the Poznan Zoo in Poland. There, Dr. Kushnir and zoo staff cared for the cubs until transportation and permits came through for their trip to the U.S.
Thanksgiving Day 2022, founder Tammy Thies flew to Poland to help expedite travel arrangements. Finally, on the last day of November, the cubs cleared customs in Chicago for the last leg of their journey to Minnesota.
Life at the Sanctuary
Lesya and the other cubs had no idea how many people worked so hard to make this international rescue a reality. All they knew was love at each step along the way.
From the moment she and her siblings stepped out of their crates, the fun began! Their arrival, safe at sanctuary, was covered by media all over the world.
Lesya is a very talkative little girl! She’s the smallest and lets her sister Stefania test the waters first. Though she’s apprehensive of new things at first, she warms up quickly. And she likes to use her tiny lion cub teeth as a weapon. She’s small but mighty!
Upon arrival, it was easy to tell her from the others since she’d scraped a bit of fur off her nose while in her travel crate. But the fur will soon grow back, and we’ll find other ways to identify her quickly, other than her personality.
To see Lesya, Stefania, Taras, and their new pride member Prada frolicking for the first time in the snow, playing together with such gusto, is one of the most heartwarming moments. And we know it’s just one of so many to come for these Ukraine lions.
LION CONSERVATION EFFORTS
It’s estimated that there were 200,000 lions roaming Africa 100 years ago. Today, with only 23,000-39,000 mature lions in the wild and ¾ of the population in decline, the African lion is classified as Vulnerable.
The main threats to African lions are human-wildlife conflict and natural prey decline, as well as habitat loss, climate change and wildlife trade.
Lions are trafficked illegally worldwide. Rising living standards in Asia have continued to drive demand for illegal wildlife products, with criminal groups increasingly using social media platforms to sell them.
U.S. Government agencies—including the Departments of State, Interior, Justice, and Commerce, among others—work together to reduce opportunities and incentives for wildlife poachers, traffickers, and sellers to engage in wildlife crime.
Humans are the key cause of the devastating decline of lion populations and with the current rate of poaching and habitat loss, lions could be completely extinct by 2050. We hope, through education, to reverse this trend.