Bakari the leopard wasn’t born into a very hopeful life.
Back in 2010, Bakari was bred at a German zoo to be used for a PR stunt. Taken away from his mother as a newborn, the tiny cub was paraded around at a Christmas dinner so guests could take photos with him.
But, like many “selfie cubs,” Bakari was of no use to his owners after he was done taking photos. When he was just 2 months old, the zoo, Tierpark Nadermann, decided it had “no space” for the little cub it had purposely bred, and got rid of him.
For many cubs, their story ends there – they sometimes disappear, or end up spending their lives in tiny cages at roadside zoos. Bakari was slightly luckier, and ended up at a sanctuary in the Netherlands called Stichtung Pantera.
But because Bakari had been separated from his mom so young, he had to be raised by humans – which can cause psychological damage in wild animals. And while the sanctuary meant well, it was facing dire financial trouble – many of the animals’ enclosures were run down, but the sanctuary couldn’t afford to improve them.
Bakari spent three years growing up in an undersized cage with little enrichment, while the sanctuary struggled to survive. Finally, in 2013, the sanctuary reached out to Four Paws International for help.
When Four Paws arrived on the scene, the team recognized that Bakari’s situation needed some serious improvement.
“[He was] placed in a small enclosure that was directly adjacent to enclosures with lions – not a good experience for him, as lions are his natural enemies,” Four Paws said in a statement.
The team quickly got to work to improve his housing. “Bakari got a new enclosure which was large and enriched with tree trunks, enrichment and the opportunity to jump, sneak and hide,” the group said.
And after three years of being the “leopard nobody wanted,” as Four Paws described him, Bakari finally began to heal.
“Bakari is changing in a positive way,” Simone Schuls, the new site manager for the sanctuary, which was renamed Felida, said in a statement to The Dodo. “He grows stronger and starts to find and develop his natural behaviour and instincts. He becomes more self-asserted and is not afraid to relax.”
But it still wasn’t the life Bakari deserved. Felida had limited space for the dozens of animals whom the former managers had taken in. While Bakari’s enclosure was expanded, it was still only a fraction of his territory in the wild.
“His behaviour shows that Bakari is ready for more,” Four Paws said. “The limited space in Felida unfortunately can not offer him this.”
For the past few years, Four Paws International has been working on moving the animals who could travel – those who weren’t too old or too sick – to Lionsrock, its sanctuary in South Africa, where the big cats could finally return to the life that had been taken from them.
Finally, this month, it was Bakari’s turn. The staff spent several months training him to walk into his traveling crate voluntarily, so he wouldn’t have to face the risk of anesthesia before traveling.
“We have been training Bakari for some time now, as he used to be afraid of the sliding door of his enclosure – possibly due to traumatic experiences from the past,” Schuls said. “We taught him that the sliding door is not scary … He is very willing to learn and enjoys the trainings.”
Last week, he was ready. On the morning of November 4, Bakari voluntarily entered his crate and began his journey, taking his first steps onto South Africa soil the following day.
While he’s currently in a temporary holding pen, he’s quickly warming up to his new home. Photos show him happily rolling on the grass and exploring all the new areas Lionsrock has to offer.
His new enclosure will be an incredible 100 times bigger than his home at Felida. And as leopards are solitary, he will have the entire pen to himself.
Six years ago, Bakari was essentially thrown away as a cub. But now, for the first time, he will be able to run freely, climb plenty of trees and thrive in the environment he was designed to live in.
“In Lionsrock he will get the chance to develop further and be the leopard that he actually is,” Four Paws said. “There are two other leopards there, who will be his neighbours. Bakari will see, hear and smell conspecifics for the first time.”
“We want nothing more than to give him a new life in Lionsrock,” Schuls noted. “Africa is where he belongs.”