From Captivity to Freedom – Fly 7 Lions on Qatar Airways B777

A mission like this – “Once in a Blue Moon”.

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

Kiev to Doha

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

With Lionel de Lange from the NGO WOW Ukraine

To my surprise, a Qatar Airways B777-300 / ER airliner (registration A7-BAF) turned from Milan Malpensa to Kiev to pick up special passengers; 7 lions in the front belly compartment. I thought the lions could be carried on a B777 Freighter, but they were carried like regular cargo in the hold of a passenger plane.

The temperature in the forward cargo bay was set to 17 degrees Celsius, which I have been told is the optimum temperature for transporting the lions. None of the lions were sedated, I was told this was not necessary and would probably do more harm than good.

A short interview to understand the history of these rescue lions, as well as the challenges of transporting wild animals, was conducted during the loading process and on board the flight.

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

Watch my video for the on-board interview.


In transit in Doha

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

Anja from WOW Ukraine keeps the lions company during the transport.

“It’s something we can all be proud of. Whether it is our staff, who fully embrace our desire to give back to communities, or those who have brought their expertise and enthusiasm, we are extremely proud to be able to contribute to a more just future.

Guillaume Halleux, Director of Freight, Qatar Airways

“The repatriation of 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 an essential role. Without them, these seven lions would still be held captive 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 more than 50 employees to ensure the success of the operation.

To South Africa

The 7 lions were later embarked on another Qatar Airways A350-900 flight to Johannesburg.

The free return of wild animals to their natural environment, at the request of wildlife organizations, is a promise made by Qatar Airways Cargo as part of its “Rewild the Planet” initiative; which is part of the airline’s WeQare sustainability program.



On Thursday April 29, the Kouga and Swinburne Nature Reserve in South Africa welcomed three lions, a lioness and three cubs. This involved a three-day trip from Kiev to Doha and Johannesburg, so that the lions could walk on the 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, where they will simply learn to discover nature. They will then be transferred to a much larger nature reserve, where they will be protected and cared for for the rest of their lives.

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