The Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary is situated on a 5 000-hectare private estate, called Bahati Estate, in the Vaalwater region of Limpopo province, South Africa. Bahati Estate is owned by the Heuser family and the sanctuary was opened by Savannah Heuser in 2012 when she was just 16 years old. Their first cat, a rescue lion from Cairo called Chanel, arrived in June 2013.
Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary made headline news around the world on 1 May 2016 when they received 33 big cats from the Animal Defenders International (ADI) rescue centres in Peru and Columbia. The rescue was part of ADI’s Operation Spirit of Freedom and the lion relocation was the biggest animal airlift of its kind.
Emoya is also partnered with the Stichting Leeuw lion sanctuary in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and has received five lions from the sanctuary. Stichting Leeuw is a temporary home for retired circus animals, animals that have had to leave zoos for various reasons and animals rescued from poor living conditions. Emoya and Stichting Leeuw share the goal of providing older cats and cats with handicaps the opportunity to live in relative freedom in gated natural reserves.
Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary is currently home to 42 big cats, including 40 lions and 2 tigers. The climate and environment at Emoya is ideal for the cats where they live in the ‘semi-wild’, in large enclosures in the natural African habitat of the Vaalwater region.
Vaalwater lies on the southern-edge of the Waterberg biosphere reserve, which has a stunning mix of habitats including mountainous regions, rolling grasslands, forests, cliff caves and river gorges. The region is also home to a variety of indigenous mammals such as lion, buffalo, giraffe and white rhino.
The Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary has a no-breeding policy and female lions receive contraceptive medication so that they can remain with their mates. Males may also undergo vasectomies to make 100% sure that no lions are bred in captivity.
The Heuser family also raise cattle and sheep on the Bahati Estate. The Bahati Volunteer Programme provides people from around the world the opportunity to experience farm life in Africa and help in the daily care of the lions.
“The redheaded girl that loves lions”
Savannah Heuser has been helping big cats in need since she was 16 years old. She currently looks after 6 lions and 2 Siberian tigers at her Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary, which is based on her family’s farm in Limpopo, South Africa. Soon she will provide a forever home to 33 more lions rescued from circuses in South America by Animal Defenders International (ADI).
She is known to some as “the redheaded girl that loves lions” and divides her days between caring for big cats, raising sheep and raising funds for her charity FUNdit. Savannah knew at age 14 already that she wanted to work with big cats. It all came about when she joined her mom, Minunette, on a trip to Zambia in 2010.
“It took a few days but I convinced my mom to let me go on a lion walk,” Savannah says with a smile. “That was when I realised what I wanted to do. Not specifically walking with lions, but I knew I wanted to work with the cats.”
At first Savannah wasn’t sure where her work with big cats would take her, but that changed when she came across a story about a lioness rescued from Cairo. “Her name is Masrya. She was basically kept in a tiny cage for two and half years of her life. She had been declawed and was very malnourished.”
Savannah knew she had to help give Masrya, and cats like her, a better life.
Shortly after, Savannah began the process of creating a big cat sanctuary on the family’s farm in Limpopo. Eighteen months of patient persistence paid off and a permit was finally granted in 2012.
Savannah opened the doors to her Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary when she was just 16 years old. Three short years later, she has eight big cats in her care, including Masrya, the rescue cat from Cairo.
Today, Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary has worldwide support with over 50 000 followers on Facebook and climbing by the day. One of these followers, a woman named Diane B. Miller, had been so impressed with the sanctuary that she contacted Savannah and asked her if she’d be willing to take on more lions – 33 more lions to be exact. Savannah agreed wholeheartedly and an introduction to Jan Creamer of Animal Defenders International (ADI) was arranged.
Jan met with Savannah at Emoya in May 2015 and was taken aback with the sanctuary. She stated, “We are delighted that these lions who have suffered so much will be going home to Africa where they belong. The climate and environment are perfect for them. When we visited Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary we knew this is a dream come true for ADI and, more importantly, the lions.”
Savannah and her mom Minunette are working tirelessly to build the phase one and phase two natural enclosures for the lions at Emoya and raise the funds needed to establish an on-site clinic and care for the lions for the rest of their lives.
“What’s most important for us is that this is for life,” says Savannah. “We’ll be caring for each of the 33 lions for the rest of their lives – and we get to do this in the natural African habitat of Emoya, the closest they’ll ever come to freedom.”
Savannah is also a sheep farmer at Bahati
“Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s right. Things couldn’t be righter. Things could be less tired. They could be less busy. But they couldn’t be righter. And I get kisses from sheep. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Savannah’s walk with lions so far
2010 – age 14 – Savannah travels to Zambia with her mom and realises she wants to work with lions
2011 – age 15 – Savannah reads story of Masrya and decides to work with rescue lions, it takes 18 months to get permits
2012 – age 16 – Savannah opens the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary on the family’s Bahati Estate
2013 – age 17 – First rescue cat Chanel arrives in June followed by 3 others: Raka, Tau and Serabie
2014 – age18 – Savannah and her mom travel to Stichting Leeuw in Amsterdam and meet Masrya
2015 – age 19 – Masrya and Nero arrive in May and the 33 lions from ADI South America are due to arrive in November