A mission like this - "Once in a blue moon".

Last month, I followed the transportation of seven rescued lions from the Ukraine to South Africa by Qatar Airways Cargo. These lions were rescued from captivity by NGO Warriors of Wildlife (WOW). Their long journey involved a three-day trip from Kiev to Doha and Johannesburg, after this journey the lions would be able to walk on grass for the first time in their lives. All are currently in good health.

Kiev to Doha

I documented the loading process of the 7 lions into the Qatar Airways B777. The lions were brought to Kiev Boryspil Airport cargo the day before, after 6 months of paperwork on the import permits. They were loaded and strapped onto 3 separate pallets.

a group of men loading crates on a truck
a tag with text on it
two men wearing face masks
With Lionel de Lange from NGO WOW Ukraine

To my surprise, a B777-300/ER (registration A7-BAF) passenger plane of Qatar Airways diverted from Milan Malpensa to Kiev to pick up the special passengers; 7 lions in the front belly cargo hold. I was thinking the lions may be transported on a B777 Freighter, however they were transported just like regular freight in the cargo hold on a passenger aircraft.

a yellow container with a rope around it
a plane being loaded with luggage
a yellow crates wrapped in white plastic
an airplane with the door open

The forward cargo hold temperature was set to 17 degrees Celsius, which I was told is the optimum temperature to transport the lions. None of the lions were sedated, I was told that there was no need for it and that it would most likely do more harm than good.

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A short interview to understand the history of these rescue lions, along with the challenges of transport wild animals, was conducted during the loading process and onboard the flight.

Lionel de Lange, from the NGO WOW Ukraine, mentioned that these lions came from a poor background, most were kept in captivity at a circus or a zoo in Ukraine. Some were abandoned by their owners. They were all rescued.

Check out my video for the interview onboard.


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men in the cockpit of an airplane

In-Transit at Doha

After 4 hours and 20 minutes, we arrived at Doha where the lions were to be transferred to a transit facility. During the transit, they were fed and watered. Lionel de Lange met with Guillaume Halleux, Chief Cargo Officer at Qatar Airways, to discuss the challenges he went through to get them transported.

a large airplane with people on it

Anja from WOW Ukraine keeping the lions company during transit.

“This is something for us all to be proud of. Whether it’s our staff, who fully support our wish to give back to communities, or those who have contributed their expertise and enthusiasm, we are extremely proud to be able to do our bit towards a fairer future.”

Guillaume Halleux, Chief Cargo Officer, Qatar Airways

“Repatriating wild animals is a major undertaking, especially over such a great distance; but we were able to count on the Qatar Airways Cargo teams, who are 100% behind us and the work we do. They played a critical role. Without them, these seven lions would still be in captivity in atrocious conditions. So thank you on their behalf.”

Lionel De Lange, Founder and Director of WOW Ukraine

It took six months of hard work, involving no less than a dozen departments and over 50 employees to ensure a successful operation. 

To South Africa

Later, the 7 lions were boarded onto another Qatar Airways A350-900 flight to Johannesburg.

a group of people standing next to a large airplane
a yellow boxes wrapped in white tape

Transporting wild animals back to their natural environment for free, at the request of wildlife protection bodies, is a promise being made by Qatar Airways Cargo as part their “Rewild the Planet” initiative; which is a part of the airline’s WeQare sustainability programme.

a group of people wearing face masks


Since Then...

On Thursday April 29th the Kouga and Swinburne nature reserve in South Africa welcomed three lions, one lioness and three cubs. This involved a three-day trip from Kiev to Doha and Johannesburg, so that the lions could walk on grass for the first time in their lives.

These lions have lived in captivity for years and they may never be able to fully adapt to life in the wild. They will spend the next few months in a protected area, in which they will simply learn to explore nature. They will then be transferred to a much larger nature reserve, where they will be protected and taken care of for the rest of their lives.