'World's loneliest lion' abandoned in zoo for years welcomed at wildlife refuge

For five long years, Ruben was the only animal left at a private zoo in Armenia after it shut down, living in what was described as a tiny concrete cell after the zoo's other lions were relocated.

But now thanks to Animals Defenders International (ADI) and Qatar Airways Cargo, the 15-year-old lion has made an epic 5,200-mile journey to a new home in South Africa, where he can live out the rest of his days in his ancestral homeland - close to his own kind.

Ruben is now being rehabilitated at the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in the Free State province. ADI President Jan Creamer told SWNS lions are sociable big cats, and in the wild, live in family groups.

"It must have been devastating for Ruben to have no contact or communication with other lions," she said. "Seeing him walk on grass for the first time, hearing the voices of his own kind, with the African sun on his back, brought us all to tears.”

When the precious cargo first arrived, his legs were wobbling due to malnutrition and a "lifetime of no exercise", she added. But Ruben’s resilience has stunned everyone at the sanctuary, with the male immediately taking to a giant catnip punchbag – his first toy.

Ms Creamer said that after not hearing other lions for years, Ruben has already started to get his roar back, with his morning calls getting steadily louder as he regains his confidence.

“His whole demeanour has transformed, his face is relaxed and no longer fearful. His determination to walk is inspiring," she said. "If he stumbles or falls he just picks himself up and keeps going. He is nothing short of heroic."

In just a few days his movement was already improving, she said. "We know this will be a long road and will require ongoing veterinary treatment but the start of his new life could not have been better.”

ADI had struggled to find a suitable flight for the large male lion out of Armenia, but Qatar Airways Cargo's WeQare charity stepped in - moving a plane with doors big enough for Ruben's crate into its scheduled passenger route.

Qatar Airways Cargo spokesperson Elisabeth Oudkerk said that when Animal Defenders International approached them and shared Ruben's story, "we immediately knew we had to help them".

"There are a lot of logistics involved in moving animals like Ruben, from the logistics at the airports involved, the process for loading and unloading the animals from the aircraft, to ensuring the correct cages and wellbeing of the animals are in place," she said.

"It takes a lot of effort from our team to organise such transport - but it is something we are all collectively very proud to be a part of.”