The lions' stories were already so harrowing. They'd spent their lives being abused in circuses in Peru and Colombia and then, after being rescued by animal rights advocates, the big cats endured a long transatlantic flight to South Africa in wooden crates.
As, 33 lions rescued by Animal Defenders International (ADI) were supposed to live out a peaceful retirement in a sanctuary. But last week, that peace was shattered when poachers broke into the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary and , large males named José and Liso.
The lions appear to have been poisoned, according to an ADI statement, and the poachers removed some body parts of the deceased animals. A criminal investigation has been launched by South Africa's police and anti-poaching units.
"José and Liso had suffered a terrible life of abuse, but their new life in Africa had given them a new lease of life," Jan Creamer, president of ADI, said in the statement. "We are heartbroken that these gentle souls have had their well-deserved freedom so cruelly taken from them and will do all that we can to ensure this cowardly killing does not go unpunished."
Armed guards are now in place and security measures at the sanctuary are being reviewed, said ADI, adding that, if appropriate, they will evacuate the lions while implementing increased security.
In March, 60 Minutes told the story of the lions' rescue, a ten-year effort by Creamer and Tim Phillips, who started ADI to rescue animals from circuses. Their work has helped lead to local laws passed in 15 U.S. states and 20 countries prohibiting the use of wild animals in circuses.
The airlift to South Africa, the biggest lion airlift in history, was the result of animal rights laws enacted in Peru and Colombia, largely based on evidence and information collected by ADI.
The killing of José and Liso wasn't the first death of the Emoya lions. Last June, a little over a month after the lions arrived at the sanctuary, female lions Kala and Rapunzel died of a botulism toxin. Rapunzel, who was featured in the 60 Minutes story, had never been out of her cage when Creamer and Phillips rescued her. The rescue organization called the lionesses' deaths a "devastating blow to the whole team."