A 15-year-old lion who spent six years in solitary confinement in a barren concrete cell has now moved to a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa where he’s around others of his own kind, thanks to an international effort by Animal Defenders International (ADI) and Qatar Airways Cargo.

After years at a private zoo in Armenia that has since shuttered, Ruben the lion has both physical and neurological damage — making it difficult for him to walk. But that hasn’t stopped ADI from seeking sanctuary for the elderly lion or for getting him the help he needs, which includes the company of other lions as they are among the most social of all big cats, said ADI President Jan Creamer. 

“It must have been devastating for Ruben to have no contact or communication with other lions,” Creamer said

The nonprofit raised funds to care for Ruben while he was in Armenia but was having trouble finding a flight that could safely relocate him to ADI’s wildlife sanctuary in South Africa.

That’s when Qatar Airways Cargo stepped up, offering a free flight in a temperature-controlled, pressurized hold as part of their “We Qare” campaign — a program that aims to relocate wildlife and endangered species back to their natural habitats.

“When ADI approached us and explained the sad story of Ruben, the lonely lion, we immediately knew we had to help him,” Qatar Airways Cargo’s Elisabeth Oudkerk said. “It takes a lot of effort from our team to organize such transport, but it is something we are all collectively proud to be a part of, knowing we helped give back to the planet.”


Ruben (Courtesy of Animal Defenders International)

The journey started after the airline notified ADI that they were moving a larger-than-normal plane into their regularly scheduled route. That created a crunch for ADI to plan logistics, but there was no way they were going to pass up the opportunity, the nonprofit said. 

“This was Ruben’s only chance,” ADI said in a post about his trek. “It would not only give him a better life, but the medical facilities he needs are in Africa. We could not let him down.”

A 2-hour drive followed to the Yerevan International Airport, which agreed to let Ruben arrive four hours — rather than eight hours — before his first scheduled flight and also to stay indoors in the coolest part of the airport to beat the summer heat.

Two flights and 15 hours later, Ruben arrived at Johannesburg International Airport, where he stayed in quarantine overnight before a 3-hour drive in an air conditioned truck to the 455-acre sanctuary, which is home to 32 other rescued lions and tigers, ADI said. 


Ruben (Courtesy of Animal Defenders International)

Ruben spent a few days inside his crate upon arrival at the sanctuary but quickly ventured out to explore his new habitat, which has been custom-designed to have ramps and guard rails to help him stay active while he is regaining his mobility, ADI said.

And Ruben’s story is far from over. 

Creamer said the lion’s recovery efforts are “nothing short of heroic.”  He falls; he gets back up. 

He always gets back up.

 “Ruben has already started to get his roar back, his morning calls getting steadily louder as he regains his confidence,” ADI posted after Ruben’s arrival. “For the first time, there’s grass under his feet, the sun on his back, the African wind in his mane, and now, voices he understands.”

Lady Freethinker is overjoyed that this lion has now found company and compassion at this sanctuary! When traveling overseas, please remember not to frequent any attraction that features captive wildlife, who deserve to live in their natural habitats and not be exploited for people’s “entertainment.”