They may be apex predators with little to fear, but life can be tough for a lion, particularly a male lion. The dynamics of a lion pride are difficult, with males being kicked out at around two years old. This is usually orchestrated by the dominant male, who becomes threatened by the up-and-coming youngsters. He needs to maintain his place at the head of the pride and will not tolerate insubordination from within.
In the wild, this forces young males to branch out on their own, and if they have siblings, they will form a coalition with their brothers. If they are alone, it can be extremely challenging for these young males to thrive without the support of a pride. In captivity, it means a young male lion cannot stay in the same enclosure with the rest of his family. This becomes problematic for a zoo or sanctuary that only has one lion enclosure.
Three-year-old male lion Kesari found himself in this situation at the Pretoria Zoo in 2017. Having once had larger enclosures available to him, other lions had shown Kesari a form of territorial and antagonistic behaviour (often seen in the wild), which forced zoo staff to relocate Kesari to a far small and less than ideal temporary enclosure. Having been born and raised at the zoo, it is unknown why the other lions singled him out, but the zoo was forced to house him in the night room until a new home could be found for him. The situation was far from ideal, as the night room was small, and generally only used in severe weather conditions, when the main enclosure needed cleaning or when lions need medical attention.
Having worked with the Captured in Africa Foundation in the past, the zoo contacted Director and Founder Drew Abrahamson to seek assistance, which began a long two-year process. Initially, it was another male lion that was to be relocated from the zoo, and the Foundation had secured a sanctuary for him. However, due to the bullying issues, a change of mind by the zoo saw Kesari selected for relocation instead, but the agreement with the sanctuary fell through, again leaving him with nowhere to go. He was now at risk of being sold off for hunting. The Foundation urged the zoo not to let this happen, and set about looking for another home for him.
Drew contacted the Animal Defenders International (ADI) Sanctuary, located in South Africa. ADI had recently purchased land to build their sanctuary, so the timing was difficult, but they nevertheless agreed to take him. When hearing about Kesari, ADI President Jan Creamer said it was such a good story. Put simply, she explained “One look at Kesari’s face, and how could we say ‘no’?”. At last, his future was looking a lot brighter.
“[There are] feelings of pride and elation when their
paws touch their new home’s soil for the first time.”
~ Drew Abrahamson
With a home secured for him, arrangements needed to be put in place, including obtaining CITES permits, organising a crate and vehicle for transport, and raising the funds to pay for his relocation. A t-shirt campaign was launched by the Foundation and supporters provided donations to help pay for Kesari’s transfer to the sanctuary.
Kesari’s story touched many people across the world, and he quickly became a popular lion.
Then finally it was time. At 5:30 am on 1 October 2019, representatives of the ADI Sanctuary, including Jan Creamer and Co-Founder Tim Phillips, joined Drew Abrahamson at the Pretoria Zoo to collect Kesari and take him to his new home. After being sedated, a full medical examination took place, with the veterinary team taking bloods, checking him over including measuring his paws and teeth, and scanning his microchip. He was reported to be in good condition and very healthy. He is a very big lion, which became evident when the crew was trying to place him into his crate. It took eight men to lift him and even Creamer stepped in to lift his head into the crate, reporting that it was very heavy. Once securely inside the crate, he was given a reversal drug to allow him to regain consciousness for the road trip to his new home.
On the ground during his relocation, Drew explained, “Every relocation I have done, I have been there on the ground. For me, follow through from beginning to end is vital as I know that all has gone the way it should have, hiccups and all. It is my responsibility to be involved to that extent!”
After a five-hour drive, with Kesari awake and alert, the team arrived at the ADI Sanctuary and lined the crate up to his new enclosure. Two years of stress, hope, frustration and excitement all came down to this moment. He was home. He was very vocal on arrival but upon opening his crate, he wouldn’t come out. Dubbed “Kesari time”, the relocation team left him in peace, so he could come out in his own time. No doubt he was nervous, unsure where he was and uncertain about what he was heading out into. Eventually he left the relative safety of his crate and set about investigating his new home with many new experiences.
“One look at Kesari’s face, and how could we say ‘no’?“
~ Jan Creamer, Animal Defenders International
Tim Phillips explains, “All the lions that arrive at the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary, initially react differently, because they are all different characters. People often expect them to bound out of their travel crates knowing they have found freedom, but many are understandably timid. We opened Kesari’s crate and initially he stayed put. We cleared the area and he slipped out into a den. He wasn’t timid, he was just wary, and cautiously assessing where he was.”
He was initially housed in his smaller feeding area to enable him to be monitored before being released into his main 2.5-acre enclosure. The feeding area includes a night house with a heated floor for those cold African nights, a platform for him to survey his domain, as well as toys and a play area, giving him enrichment opportunities. Having been housed in the zoo’s night quarters for so long, it was a whole new world for him to be out in the open under blue skies, with grass under his paws, and new lions nearby. He spent time in his new nest under the platform, scented with lavender oil, and tried out some of his toys.
A short video highlighting Kesari’s relocation can be seen here.
Seeing Kesari released into his new enclosure was a “feeling very difficult to explain”, says Drew. “There are so many emotions involved during the process of any rescue or relocation that happen from initial contact, which can cause a bit of stress due to lack of space, then my mind tends to go into overdrive as I am then determined to find the right place! It is heart-breaking and frustrating when it doesn’t work out the way you envisioned. Then you’re pushing through to find solutions to issues. And finally, it’s pride and elation when their paws touch their new home’s soil for the first time.”
Asked about the toughest challenge of this relocation, Drew shared that it was “having a sane mind to follow through without getting caught up in the politics”.
Kesari had a very busy first night in his new home, tearing down a hanging tyre and dragging it, along with another tyre and two large catnip sacks, into his den. He began a new hobby of collecting his toys and spending hours playing with them. Phillips says he “settled in his den in his feeding camp, but soon began playing really vigorously with the toys. By the next morning he had torn down the tyre that had been hanging up, picked up another tyre, torn apart the sacks full of hay and catnip, and carried everything to his den where he was guarding his prizes.”
After a number of days, on his fifth birthday, he gained the courage to leave his den area and venture out into his much larger enclosure. Phillips tells that “when we opened the gate to the main one-hectare habitat, Kesari stayed put for over 24 hours. Then suddenly he strode out full of confidence. He paused to attack and play with another hanging tyre. He explored the whole area, checking everything out. He went up on his hind legs, to pull empty weaver bird nests out of the trees. He tore a branch off a tree and carried that around in his mouth for a while.”
He was soon roaming around the perimeter, playing with more toys, and checking out his new neighbours – two male lions on either side, rescued from circuses. “You could see he was intrigued by the roars of the other lions”, explains Tim. “But he stayed quiet, opening his mouth to respond then checking himself. He seemed to be thinking “I’m not going to announce myself until I know a bit more about this place”.”
Kesari was initially shy and very wary of humans, but despite what he has been through, he is a very laid-back lion with a beautiful personality and striking looks. “Kesari is a really big healthy lion and much, much bigger than his neighbours”, says Tim. “The circus lions we rescued are very inbred and have had a terrible diet before we rescue them. The big cats we rescue as cubs have all outgrown their parents thanks to good nutrition from a young age.”
“[Kesari] is one of the loudest voices in the roaring which regularly
ripples around the sanctuary and is at its loudest at sunset and dawn.”
~ Tim Phillips, Animal defenders International
Within a few weeks, his confidence increased and he soon became one of the loudest lions in the sanctuary, roaring his heart out with the other lions. “He is friends with Chino and Coco on one side and Simba and Rey on the other – all four were rescued from two different circuses in Peru”, explains Tim. “They share a fence line and Kesari will lie alongside them, especially with Chino and Coco. He seems to have a real bond with his neighbours. They were rescued from places more than 3,000 miles apart – Simba and Rey were in circus in the Andes mountains in Peru! There’s never any aggression or posturing between them, all five seem very relaxed.
A highlight of life in the sanctuary must be “when the sun is going down and the roaring starts really rippling around the sanctuary, Kesari, Coco and Chino will often be lying together, about a metre apart, with the fence between them, and they will all join in but can’t be bothered to get up, not even lift their heads, they just lie there and roar on the ground”, exclaims Tim.
With the sanctuary’s aim of giving their animals a life as close as possible to what nature intended, it is hoped that in time Kesari will be placed with a non-breeding lioness for companionship. Tim explains that “the companionship of their own kind is really important for lions, so we would love the opportunity to have Kesari with another lion. But it is a challenge because they are such powerful animals. We have an introduction habitat at the sanctuary which currently has a group of three circus lions from Guatemala in it that we are working to form a small pride. Many of the circus animals we rescue have had their claws cruelly removed, so they have lost an important weapon. Kesari is so big and powerful and with his claws, poor Chino and Coco would sadly be no match for him if there was a problem, which is real shame because they seem to have a real bond. He seems to be happy with other males around but the perfect thing would be to rescue a lioness and introduce them. He is a young lion and so we really hope that we will find him company.”
Kesari is a very popular lion at the sanctuary, with Tim stating that, “everybody loves Kesari. He is so friendly, inquisitive and playful. He’s friends with the male lions who are in enclosures on either side of him and he is one of the loudest voices in the roaring which regularly ripples around the sanctuary and is at its loudest at sunset and dawn. We have thirty lions and 12 tigers here and the lions are all very talkative.” What people may not know about this gentle giant is “probably just how playful he is, he really loves to play with his toys.”
When asked about the highlight of Kesari’s time at the sanctuary so far, Tim responded that it was “first seeing him play with the tyre and roar were unforgettable, but the most truly beautiful sight was when he first explored his main habitat. The sun was setting and so Kesari was in this golden light. He was exploring, playing, standing on his hind legs and reaching into the trees, seeing him striding through the long grass full of confidence and majestic, was to see Kesari truly arriving at the ADI Wildlife sanctuary – that’s what we had all been working for, ADI and Captured in Africa.”
Kesari’s story highlights the plight of thousands of captive lions in South Africa, many of whom end up in the sights of trophy hunters or being killed for the lion bone trade. Being the first South African-born big cat at the sanctuary, and through the hard work and determination of both the Foundation and ADI, he is one of the lucky ones. Sadly, many others are not.
We look forward to seeing Kesari continue to thrive and live out his life in harmony, as all lions deserve. Follow the Foundation’s Facebook page and ADI’s Facebook page for ongoing updates on this beautiful lion.
We thank everyone who contributed to Kesari’s story and especially to our friends at Animal defenders International, we could not have done it without you!