By the time Simba and Lula were rescued, they were emaciated, wounded and deeply traumatised. It would take two weeks for Simba to leave his shelter and explore his new home. Then, on 10 August, airport staff welcomed five lions, two tigers, two bears, two hyenas and two husky dogs from the Magic World – a zoo just outside Aleppo, Syria, which didn’t look much like a zoo after six years of civil war. Around 110 animals had died, the keepers were nowhere to be seen, enclosures were filled with filth and mortar shells, and the few creatures not wiped out by the war were getting worse by the hour.
The safe arrival of these animals in Jordan marked the culmination of a particularly hard few months for Amir Khalil, 52, a vet who works for Four Paws, an Austria-based animal-rescue organisation, and the instigator of both operations. Rescuing the animals was costly and dangerous. An Isil suicide bomber blew himself up outside the zoo in Mosul, forcing Khalil – who had just arrived to save Simba and Lula – to leave again. Getting the animals out of Aleppo meant crossing through rebel-, government- and al-Qaeda-held territory.