VAALWATER, South Africa (KTVU) - It is a dawn of a new beginning for dozens of lions, rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia, as the animals woke up this weekend to their first African sunrise.
Los Angeles-based Animal Defenders International (ADI) carried out a months long operation that resulted in a record-breaking cargo flight that delivered 33 lions to Johannesburg, South Africa on Saturday night.
As part of the operation, ADI said it raided circuses in Peru, where in addition to the lions, it rescued dozens of other animals, including bears and six different species of monkeys.
The group said in Colombia, it retrieved nine circus lions.
Rescue workers say the animals were kept in deplorable conditions. Some of the lions were declawed, some were found with broken teeth, and one had lost an eye.
The transport effort began on Thursday, where a huge MD11 aircraft carried the nine lions in travel crates from Bogota, Colombia to Lima, Peru.
That's where the nine big cats were then joined by 24 other rescued lions for a trans-Atlantic flight to Johannesburg.
The lions were monitored throughout the flight by animal care experts, according to ADI.
They finally arrived in Johannesburg on Saturday evening.
Animal Defenders International said the momentous event was marked with the lions bellowing "out a huge roar that echoed through the aircraft" during touched down.
Trucks then transported the animals overnight to Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Limpopo.
The group described what animal care workers witnessed upon arrival: "One of the nine lions from Colombia, Iron, was the first of the 33 to step into his forever home, clearly relishing being able to rub up against a tree, another first for the big cats who had formerly lived in cages on the back of circus trucks."
Many of the lions have never had direct contact with other lions, always having a fence or a cage separating them.
To familiarize the big cats with their new home, the lions will initially live in "bonding camps" where they will gradually be introduced to other lions, according to ADI.
Then, over the coming months, the lions will be released into huge, open habitats with platforms and watering holes.
"Before ADI rescued them, these animals had never felt the grass beneath their feet or the sun over their heads... This has been a really important mission... Getting the animals home has been exhausting and exhilarating," said Jan Creamer ADI President.
ADI credited sponsors including the Oakland Zoo and the non-profit group GreaterGood.org for helping to make the rescue mission possible.
The animal rescue group said the lions have now been returned "to the homeland their ancestors had been torn from."