An Abandoned Lion Cub Finds an Unlikely New Family

By: Ronda Fuller | Published: Nov 02, 2023

Young animals in the wild have little time to frolic or have fun, unlike the human world or captivity. Dangers creep out in all directions, and if a cub fails to adapt, they perish.

This cub’s pride abandoned her after she fell ill, sealing her fate—but an intervention from an unlikely ally saved her. Read on to learn her story—one of friendship, sacrifice, and triumph.

She Was Left All Alone In The World

In February 2012, a baby lion was discovered near a farm in Botswana. This little cub was clearly suffering from a terrible malady. Helpless without her family, she was severely dehydrated and starving. Needless to say, she was on death’s door.

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It looked like the end for this cub, who could barely move even in the presence of danger—or at least, a convoy of humans. Luckily, these humans had come by to rescue her. Or at least they would try to rescue her. Her recovery wouldn’t be easy.

She Had Lost Her Brother And Sister

The little cub wasn’t alone when they found her near the farm. Her two siblings had been found nearby, but it was too late for them. She was the only survivor, but as such, her chances of coming back around were slim and getting slimmer. 

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When a lion is separated from the rest of the family this way, it’s a sign things are about to turn bad. Even lions need to feel a part of something. Unfortunately, when one in the pack gets sick, they get abandoned.

The Long-Term Plan

Nursing the cub back to health would not be enough for her to survive—not if she was to reclaim her hunting grounds, as her rescuers intended for her—rather than persist in captivity. The long-term plan for her rehabilitation would be a back-and-forth effort.

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Valentin Gruener, a conservationist and the man who found her, led the charge on the task. But before they could even think of getting her back out there, they would need to return her to full strength—and there was still a way to go.

When They Found Her, She Was In A Bad Way

When Valentin and the rest of the team found her, she weighed only four pounds. As the co-founder of the Modisa Wildlife Project in Kalahari, he felt a particular responsibility to bring the cub back to a stable state. But her problems had been beyond their powers to mend.

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They needed the support of a local veterinarian. Thankfully, one had been available. Upon assessing the wounded baby lion, the veterinarian had her put her on an IV drip for starters, as she was beyond rehydration through regular means. 

Bringing Her Into The Fold

The little cub would need more than a little food and water. To bring her back from the edge, they immediately put her on a strict diet of eggs, milk, cream, sunflower oil, calcium, and vitamins. She began to show some signs of improvement—but it wasn’t a guarantee. 

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This intervention wouldn’t happen in the wild. But human beings have the amazing ability to bend the rules on who gets to be “in” with the group. Her rescuers weren’t sure how this would shape the little lion—only time would tell. 

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In The Name Of Love

The little cub started to get better. With good signs of recovery and some optimism, her rescuers decided to name her while they nursed her back to full health. They settled on “Sirga.” Soon, she began finding her own strength and steadily built back a will to live.

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After some time passed, Sirga wasn’t just working her way back to health—she was bounding around with bundles of energy! After all the hardship and loss she had suffered, she was back on track, playful, and ready to grow.

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She Was More Than Just Recovering

Sirga tugged everyone’s heartstrings and shocked them with her fast return to vitality. The IV drip and special diet had worked their magic—even so, the vets and the team at the Modisa Wildlife Project almost couldn’t believe her level of tenacity. 

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Valentin commented on her notoriety at the project with a glint in his eye and a smile: “She is probably the most spoiled—and well-fed—lion in Botswana.” They had succeeded in the first step of their plan. The next step in the plan would prove to be equally difficult. 

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Getting Sirga Back Into The Wild

After a full year of recovery—and after gaining a staggering 170 pounds—Sirga had experienced an incredible amount of growth. Valentin and the team acknowledged that it was time for her to get off her baby diet and onto the kind of food she would be expected to hunt in the wild.

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Since the team didn’t want her to live in captivity, it was important that she get used to the kind of meat she would be hunting for once she learned to survive on her own. 

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She Wasn’t A Hunter Yet

After another two years, Sirga had almost tripled her size since being found as a cub near the Botswana farm by the Modisa Wildlife Project. She treated everyone there like her new pride. After all, they had been the ones to nurse her to health and protect her when she needed it most.

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As time passed, her playtime became dangerous to join in with. Her size understandably intimidated even those who had rescued her as a four-pound baby. Well, not exactly everyone. One person would always be game.

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Valentin Would Always Be There For Her

The one person not intimidated by her, no matter how big she would get, was Valentin. Since he wasn’t afraid to get up close and personal, it made sense that he would be her primary carer. And it seemed that she recognized him as the one who had saved her.

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He was willing to keep up with her games, even though one maul could put him in the hospital. But she always had a playful spirit and kept things light. In fact, she lit up whenever he would return.

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Sirga’s Soft Side

From the size of these animals, it’s easy for people to assume that they are killing machines through and through, but in reality, much of a lion’s free time, when not out hunting, is spent lounging and playing with the family. In this sense, Sirga was no different.

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She loved putting her head in Valentin’s lap and sleeping on him. She would lunge at him and give him a big playful hug. Even lions need love and affection from time to time. Luckily, Valentin trusted her enough to reciprocate.

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Teaching Her Grow Up Was A Real Challenge

It wasn’t always playtime between Valentin and Sirga. As well as teaching her the limits when it came to hugs and play, Valentin would also need to coach her on how to become an adult lion. Human parents have a hard enough time getting their kids to grow into human adults—imagine having to raise a lion!

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Valentin didn’t hope that he could simply domesticate her—quite the opposite. He wanted to hone her natural instincts so that she could deal with the world on her own terms—a lion’s terms.

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Getting Their Hands (And Paws) Dirty

Along with the rest of the team, Valentin began coaching her back into her natural habitat. If Valentin ever felt sentimental about her growing up, it would be nothing compared to the emotion and energy required to get her back on track.

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They began the process of transitioning play time to training time. Valentin wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty or catching a cut or two. It was likely that she didn’t quite get what the team was after, given that she was only used to playing with them. 

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She Soon Became Restless

Sirga needed no encouragement to get back out into the desert, where she belonged. When she wasn’t playing, she became bored. Even during playing, it was obvious that the “soft” play wasn’t giving her the stimulation she needed. It was time for her to graduate.

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Try as they might, the team couldn’t keep her occupied in this kind of captivity. She would need to get back out there, but first, they needed to complete the last step of their long-term plan: she would need to learn how to hunt.

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Going On Hunting Trips With Valentin

While the hunting instinct is inherent in every lion, the skills of hunting are not. They are something that cubs pick up from the seasoned members of the pride. Without honing these skills, Sirga would have a hard time surviving by herself. It was critical that she would learn the ways of the hunter.

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These lessons would have to be imparted to her by Valentin and the team. Here’s a shot of the two of them stalking in the water, learning the art of stealth and patience.

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A Student Of The Craft

All students of any subject learn at different speeds. This is no different for lions. She absorbed expertise from each lesson at different rates. Slowly, she was getting it. Although she began slow, she quickly got up to speed.

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This came as a relief to Valentin and the rest of the Modisa Wildlife Project. She would need them to keep up out there. Of course, Sirga took to each trip with enthusiasm. She had been waiting for these moments and was raring to show off what she could do. 

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It Had Always Been A Part Of The Plan

From day one, Valentin and the others intended to have Sirga reintroduced to the wild. They didn’t want to simply pacify animals to the gawking amusement of visitors at the zoo. They wanted a life for her out in the real world.

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Valentin couldn’t bear the idea of Sirga subsisting on scraps thrown out by tourists behind bars. He wanted her to hunt for her own food and make her own way. He envisioned a future of hunting antelopes and prowling around her own hunting ground.

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Shedding Her Domestication

In an interview, Valentin said that he intended to “release her eventually as a wild lion, not as one who has met lots of people,” adding, “That would be dangerous.” Sirga would be an easy target for other predators if she were released without plenty of hunting experience. 

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It took a lot of work to get her ready for the journey. They slowly increased the size of her enclosure to ensure that she could transition into her natural independence. Ultimately, their efforts paid off.

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Documenting Her Story

The story of a man raising a lion couldn’t exactly be kept secret for very long. Much of Valentin and Sirga’s story would be captured by Jurgen Jozefowicz, who planned to turn their experience into a miniseries called Saving Sirga: Journey Into The Heart Of A Lion

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The documentary follows their journey from Sirga’s saving to her gradual release back into the wild. It’s a fascinatingly intimate experience that captures the beautiful bond that Valentin and Sirga share—as well as some of their most difficult moments.

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Their Beautiful Story And Bond Is Special

The lesson to be learned from Sirga and Valentin’s relationship is that love can transcend barriers that most of us would not think possible. While it wouldn’t be possible to befriend a lion, it speaks to the capacity that all life has for not only survival—but for cooperation and respect.

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Valentin respected Sirga’s life and her natural need for freedom. Meanwhile, Sirga, a lion with enough power to take down fully grown humans without much effort, visibly demonstrates gratitude and love to the man who saved her life.

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