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When the sound of lions roaring at the LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary, echoes over the Eastern Free State landscape, the director of FOUR PAWS Fiona Miles, often recalls that definitive moment in November 2007 when the first ten lions from Austria arrived to be released to live their best life in the African sun.
She keenly remembers their arrival from the former safari park in Gänserndorff in Austria together with two lionesses from a Romanian zoo.
“I was in tears when that first lion came out of the crate. I could not believe the plan finally came together.”
The release into big enclosures was the culmination of months of hard work and perseverance. It was so much more than she could ever have imagined when she first heard the leader of rescue missions of FOUR PAWS, Dr. Amir Khalil, was searching for a project manager to head up the project of establishing a big cat sanctuary.
“We were still busy finishing off the construction work when the trucks with the lions were 20 kilometres from LIONSROCK. It took hard labour to make that first release possible.”
The release in 2007 took place not too long after she walked into the Erstwhile Lodge for the first time.
“On that occasion I saw a lion cub walking into a room where there were lion skins on the floor and hunting trophies on the walls. I knew we had to step in and do that fast. This was shortly after the leader of rescue missions at FOUR PAWS, Dr. Amir Khalil, gave me a memory stick with documents and said we need to do whatever it takes to turn the tide for the animals.”
At the time she was living in Johannesburg and did not even know where the lodge was situated. Soon however FOUR PAWS had taken over the property with its 25 lions, one tiger and two leopards, and immediately set to work.
She realised she was working with a team who shared her vision of a world where all animal cages are empty. Together they took on the task of turning a breeding farm, where big cats were exploited for commercial gain, into a true sanctuary.
Today the number of rescued big cats has grown to more than 80 lions, 23 tigers and three leopards.
Not only has Fiona seen to the establishment of South Africa’s largest big cat sanctuary in 16 years but she has taken part in many of the reveal and rescue projects, and played an important role in investigations into animal welfare atrocities.
“We do all we can to ensure the lives of these animals are extended.”
To establish LIONSROCK as the animal welfare centre of excellence, a team of animal welfare specialists like Site Manager Hildegard Pirker who came across from Austria with the first rescued lions in 2007 is key.
Today FOUR PAWS South Africa has a staff contingent on LIONSROCK of more than 40 members seeing to the facility as well as taking care of the animals and visitors. In the Cape Town Office, a team of 15 forms the programmes, administration, fundraising, human resources, and communications backbone.
The establishment of the sanctuary is just one of her animal welfare achievements. In 2009, she was part of negotiations to rescue Zimbabwean elephants, which were successfully relocated to Hwange National Park. A year later, she was the Project Manager of the Robben Island rescue of 81 animals that would have been culled.
Once the sanctuary was established, Fiona turned her attention to strengthening the organisation’s advocacy focus.
In 2017, she handed over a petition with over 500 000 signatures to the Minister of Environmental Affairs, calling for a ban of canned lion hunting.
She adds: “A key moment in my life was viewing the Cook Report. This report was the first to expose the atrocities of canned lion hunting.”
Even though her achievements in animal welfare are pioneering, this was not her specialist field of study. Fiona obtained various administration, human resources and marketing qualifications and was a business consultant to many companies before her path crossed that of FOUR PAWS.
She knew from the beginning a wealth of knowledge, commitment and an extended team would be necessary to bring hope to animals. One of the challenges was to form sustainable relationships with stakeholders.
“We can and should all make a difference in the lives of animals that would otherwise have been forgotten. You should stand for what you believe in.”
In June this year the cabinet passed a White Paper which if accepted by Parliament will give legislative substance to much of her and organisations in the Lion Coalition‘s campaigning to end the vicious cycle of big cats in captivity.
The sentience of animals now also has the chance of being enshrined in law. This gives Fiona hope. “We need to be a world leader in animal welfare.“
To Fiona there is a new horizon to conquer.
She believes with the consequences of climate change already impacting on humanity and the earth, organisations like FOUR PAWS can leverage their position to make a difference.
“The key for FOUR PAWS is promoting a move towards more sustainable agricultural practices that do not support intensive farming of animals. Reducing the amount of meat and animal products in our diet is an important solution to mitigate climate change.