The lions who found safety after escaping from the circus


Savannah Heuser is a big cat person. Brought up on a farm in Limpopo, she’s no stranger to the great outdoors. But she first experienced the call to conservation on a trip to the Zambian wilderness with her mother back in 2010. The inexplicable beauty of animals in their natural habitat provoked a sense of primordial empathy in Heuser, who was just 14 at the time. Two years later she made use of her family’s land to open the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary.

It’s difficult to imagine lions and tigers ever needing someone to look out for them. In the wild that’s a fair assumption, but the animals that turn up at Heuser’s sanctuary come from traumatic backgrounds – circuses and zoos from all over the world, as far afield as Amsterdam, Cairo and Colombia. Some mistreated by their former guardians, others hurt in wild confrontations, all with a loving new home after arriving. Unable to survive in the wild after living in captivity their whole lives, the refuge is crucial to their existence.

Primarily a haven for lions, though it also houses two tigers, Emoya sets out to heal the emotional scars of the animals along with their physical wounds. Abused creatures remember. But Heuser has found that affection, accessible food and open space is an antidote to even the most severe trauma. Her project, which has been running for five years, is making a real difference to the animals it takes in. And it’s all thanks to a young woman who trusted her gut and followed through with the resources available to her. If more people don’t follow suit, South Africa’s wildlife might one day consist solely of the animals left in sanctuaries.