Animal lover braves bullets & bombs to rescue rare big cats in Ukraine

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An animal rescuer is braving bombs, mines and Russian soldiers to carry out a dramatic rescue of two endangered big cats from a town on the frontline in Ukraine. Wildlife lover Lionel de Lange, 57, is on a mission to save a rare black leopard and a jaguar trapped under fire in a small settlement in the east of the war-torn country.

The courageous South African, who runs the charity Warriors of Wildlife, says he will be following Ukrainian forces into the area and recovering the big cats. In June last year, he rescued nine lions from Odessa taking them to safety in Romania.

It is thought President Zelensky’s troops could be liberating the town in a matter of days as they are just five or six miles from the settlement.

He said: “We are going to rescue a black leopard and a jaguar, two highly endangered species, along with three Italian mastiff dogs.

“I’ll be literally following the Ukrainian troops in as soon as they push out the Russians, I’ll be on standby as soon as we get the news we can go in. If I see it’s happening I’ll move up and be close, I’ll be in the east anyway taking in whatever I can with supplies for the people.”

Mr de Lange said he believes he will have a window of just a few hours to sedate and rescue the cats before Russians begin shelling the town near Bakhmut.

He cannot name the exact location where the cats are held because he said desperate Russian forces were stealing rare animals to sell back home or on the black market.

The male black leopard, aged around two, and female jaguar, aged around one-and-a-half, are currently held in a small cage in a back garden in the hotly fought-over territory on the front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

Mr de Lange said another hurdle he faced was that the EU had brought back legislation which had been temporarily suspended when the war broke out, meaning it was now harder to get animals out of Ukraine without reams of paperwork.

But despite risking his life and having to battle bureaucracy as well as bombs, Mr de Lange will be heading into Ukraine in the next few days.

He said: “We can’t give the town’s name where they are because the Russians have been stealing animals, but I will be going in with the Ukrainian soldiers taking back the town.

“The problem is as soon as a town is liberated the Russians who have retreated start shelling and bombing it to destroy everything, so I’ve only got about a 12-hour window to get in and get the cats out.

“I’ll have to get in and sedate the animals and then get them on the transport to get out of there as quickly as possible.

“There is also the problem that the road may have been mined, so that needs to be looked at before we can drive in. It’s a bit of a sh**storm.”

Mr de Lange said he is often asked “what about the people?” when he undertakes these dangerous missions, but he says he tries to help people too.

He said: “I get asked this question all the time, what about people? I still care about the people, I lived in Ukraine for ten years, and my friends are there.

“I’ll be taking in humanitarian supplies and if someone wants to jump in one of the vans when I am leaving, I will take them out with me.”

Mr de Lange owns a wildlife refuge in South Africa called Simbonga Game Reserve and Sanctuary and has previously rehomed rescued lions from Ukraine there.

But he said rehoming non-native species needs more permissions, for example taking a rescued tiger there took almost a year’s worth of paperwork.

He said: “These two big cats will be going to Zoo Tîrgu Mureș in Romania, the same place we took the nine lions to last year.

“They’ve got a home for the cats, a really nice place for them.”

Mr de Lange, who lived in the Ukrainian town of Kherson up until the Russian invasion, has been working tirelessly to rescue endangered captive wild animals from Ukraine both now and before the war.

In June last year, he staged a dramatic rescue getting nine lions out of Ukraine and taking them to safety in Romania, and over the years he has rescued dozens of big cats and bears, as well as other animals.

To donate to Lionel’s latest mission follow this link

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