BETHLEHEM – Four Bengal tigers rescued from years of captivity in a train carriage in Argentina have been released into open-air enclosures in South Africa.
After a journey of more than 70 hours from Argentina, the tigers stepped from their crates into open-air enclosures at the Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa's central Free State province.
Visibly curious about their new homes, the tigers quickly surveyed the boundaries of their fenced-in areas, about 80-square meters (yards) in size, and chowed on chunks of meat put out as a welcome treat.
The tigers' arrival in South Africa on Saturday was the culmination of years of planning by the international animal welfare organization Four Paws, said Dr. Amir Khalil, mission leader and veterinarian.
“I was more excited than the tigers," he said, adding that it was expected the cats would be reluctant to leave their containers. “But they got out immediately. They wanted to discover the place, to smell the grass, to taste it.”
He said the tigers' activity showed they intend “to defend, to secure a new place. So they need some time now to calm down, and they still have a long way to learn about the area and the new territory.”
The tigers are currently kept as pairs in two separate enclosures, a plan that appears to have gone smoothly so far.
Over the next weeks and months, the tigers will be monitored and get any necessary veterinary care, he said.
“We will start coming here often and feeding them, getting them used to all our staff and our caretakers so that they learn to know what is our routine and when they start relaxing," he said.
The next step will be to release the tigers to bigger enclosures that are several acres large, said Hildegard Pirker, manager of the Lionsrock sanctuary, where more than 100 lions, leopards tigers and a cheetah are living.
All the enclosures include open grassland with bushes and trees and protected natural areas where the animals can rest and shelter from the elements, according to Lionsrock. The enclosures are circular in shape and follow the natural shape of the land so that the cats do not feel they are in a corner.
The animals have been rescued from circuses, zoos, the entertainment industry and private captivity from all over the world including Austria, Bulgaria, Congo, France, Gaza, Germany, Iraq, Jordan, Romania, Serbia, South Africa, Switzerland, Syria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Four Paws has established the Lionsrock reserve in South Africa for the big cats and visitors can come to see the animals in their new environments.