Lions born into captivity find happiness together after being rescued from a circus and petting zoo for a new life in South Africa
Lions who were both born into captivity have found happiness together after their rescuers decided to introduce them to one another. King of the jungle Luke and lioness Phuku defied the odds to form a strong bond at Love Lions Alive sanctuary in Free State, South Africa, after meeting earlier this year.
The pair were introduced despite Luke spending the first five years of his life in a 5ft by 5ft box and barely socialising with other lions at a particularly cruel circus in the Ukraine.
Phuku was born into captivity in a petting zoo. She was weaker than the other lions and suffered from a hip condition common in captive breeding. Despite being with other lions, she was often attacked by older males and was cautious when she first met Luke.
But Line Rise and Andi Rive, who run the sanctuary and care for 24 big cats all rescued from captivity, say the pair were soon headbutting and grooming each other just like domestic cats.
Andi said Phuku was so weak physically when she came to the sanctuary she couldn't run, jump or even grab food with her paws properly.
She said: 'We didn't think we were ever going to put Phuku with another lion because they would hurt her because she was so physically compromised.
'We had Luke come along and he wasn't able to move all that well either, because he had lived in a box all these years.
'And we were watching them and thinking maybe this is Phuku's only chance, in that here is another lion who also isn't physically capable.
'But Phuku's movement was already changing substantially, she can run now which she couldn't do at all before. And Luke too was getting stronger.
Andi said there was one window of opportunity.
She said: 'We saw them starting to hang out by the fence together, they were communicating through the fence, and so we watched and waited.
'But if it doesn't work out with able bodied lions it can mean death, and these two could still do a lot of damage.
'It was a little bit tense, Phuku at first was a little bit defensive because she had previously been with males who had hurt her.
'Luke had no idea what was going on, he had never been with another lion as far as we know, but we watched every movement ready to separate them if we needed to.
'But we have been lucky with them. Just like a domestic cat they headbutt and lick one another. And just like a domestic cat, or even a human couple, they have these little spats, but with lions it is very much louder.
'Neither is more dominant, one gets the food first sometimes, or the other one does, and it's all very good.
'Phuku is spayed so this isn't about breeding, and it isn't the end game for us for all the lions to have partners.
'We just really don't want them living alone because they are such demonstrative social and gregarious animals.'
After she outgrew the petting zoo, Phuku was moved. But in September last year the site was raided by poachers. They poisoned five other lions before butchering them for body parts.
The poachers came back twice more before she was finally rescued and taken to the Love Lions Alive sanctuary.
In Ukraine, the charity Warriors of Wildlife had rescued Luke and brought him back from the brink of starvation before securing his passage to Africa in February this year - also to the Love Lions Alive sanctuary.
Lionel said Luke and Phuku's bond was particularly amazing because Luke had always been alone.
He said: 'It makes me feel so happy to see Luke and Phuku now knowing they'll never be alone again. They are like Simba and Nala from the Lion King.
'We were so happy when they formed a bond, I think Luke wanted some companionship, there was no aggression, it was as if they knew one another and it was really, really special.
'It'll be the two of them now together for the rest of their lives.'