The largest-ever airlift of lions is set to fly off on Friday as 33 beasts rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia return to their homeland in South Africa.

The trip has been organised and paid for by LA-based animal welfare group Animal Defenders International (ADI), which has been working in the two South American countries for many years, trying to get the use of wild animals in circuses banned.

The lions in an enclosure ahead of the airlift

The lions will be flown out on Friday

ADI’s Tom Phillips told of his joy at the release of the lions into a private sanctuary where they will spend the rest of their days.

He said: “It is going to be emotional leaving Peru.

“We’ve spent a lot of time here, we’ve become very attached to the country and the work we’re doing here.

“But it will be hugely satisfying to see these lions walking into the African bush, it might be one of the finest rescues I’ve ever seen – it’s never happened before, taking lions from circuses in South America all the way home to Africa.

“It’s like a fairy tale.”

The lions have suffered during their years in captivity – some have been declawed, one has lost an eye and many have broken or rotting teeth.

The first group of nine lions will be collected in the Colombian capital, Bogota, on a McDonnell Douglas cargo plane which will pick up 24 more in Peru’s capital, Lima, before heading to Johannesburg.

From there, they will be transported by land to their new home at the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary in Limpopo province, where it is hoped they will learn to love their large natural enclosures.