Two by two: Rescuers save lion, wolf from Ukraine war zone

After a daring four-day journey through Ukraine, Simba the lion and Akyla the wolf are safely across the border in Romania. The animals had been living in southeast Ukraine when Russian troops attacked.

Eldar Emric/AP
An adult male lion named Simba sits inside an enclosure at a zoo in Radauti, Romania, on March 23, 2022. The lion and a wolf named Akyla have been evacuated from a zoo in war-torn Ukraine to safety in Romania.

Simba the lion and a wolf named Akyla have been evacuated from a zoo in war-torn Ukraine and brought to safety in Romania in what an animal rights group involved in the operation says was a four-day mission “full of dangers” further hampered by border entry bureaucracy.

The adult male lion and the gray wolf, who were fully awake during the dangerous journey due to lack of tranquilizers in Ukraine, arrived Monday at a zoo in Radauti, from a zoo in Zaporizhzhia in southeast Ukraine.

Now at a safe distance from the conflict and after spending four days in cages in the back of a van, the two animals were recovering from the journey in their new enclosure Wednesday, regaining their strength as they lounged in the shade.

“If there is something this war brought on is incredible cooperation between organizations,” said Sebastian Taralunga of the animal rights group Animals International, one of several that was involved in planning the animals’ extraction.

“Everybody agreed that in extreme times we have to have extreme measures and we decided to do whatever possible to bring those animals out of war.”

The evacuation of the large animals was made possible due to the efforts and cooperation of several animal rights groups and private citizens, including two men from the United Kingdom who volunteered to enter Ukraine to rescue the animals and drive them to safety.

“I couldn’t find a driver from Romania to go and help, also not from Ukraine, so these guys were absolutely fabulous – they put their lives in danger,” said Roxana Ciornei, president of the Romania-based animal rights group Patrocle’s House. “But they arrived safely here.”

The long journey from conflict-hit Ukraine, a mission fraught with the dangers of entering a war zone, was far from simple.

The van carrying the animals could not secure permission by the authorities to cross through Romania’s Siret border point. This left the drivers no choice but to twice traverse the towering Carpathian Mountains – which arch across the countries’ common border – from west to east adding nearly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to their journey.

“It was a central-level decision that Romania and Ukraine will only have a single border crossing for large animals,” said Gabriel Paun, the EU director at Animals International.

“It was a team of people acting in good faith to do everything they could to rescue those animals,” he said.

“It’s difficult to get people out of Ukraine if they’re in very dangerous areas, but to bring out a lion and a wolf … was mission impossible. I was fifty-fifty on whether those animals and those people would make it out alive.”

Mr. Paun said that they couldn’t find a vet to help with their evacuation mission and that no tranquilizers were available, which meant that the animals were “fully aware and awake” through their journey to safety.

“You can imagine what it means to drive with a lion and a wolf in the back of your van with cages that are not very stable and could have opened at any moment," said Mr. Taralunga of Animals International.

He said Simba the lion suffered an injury during the transport after hitting himself against the cage but veterinarians said it was not serious and would heal on its own.

The animals will now spend time in quarantine at their new enclosure and children and other visitors can see them at the zoo, after which they'll eventually be relocated to sanctuaries.

“My NGO here runs a shelter of 300 dogs, we have cows, we have horses, but I have never thought in my life that I’d come to rescue a lion and a wolf,” said Ms. Ciornei. “We gathered a lot of people and everybody did something together ... and we succeeded to do this.”

“There is a good part in this war in Ukraine, that these animals will go to a better life.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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