Vet Says Emaciated Sudan Park Lions are 'Fighters' as Rescuers Work Tirelessly to Save Them

"I look to the eyes of the lion and I get a sign from them, 'We are fighters, we want to survive,' " Dr. Amir Khalil tells PEOPLE.

After horrifying images of emaciated lions in Sudan’s capital went viral last week, a team of veterinarians and animal experts have flown to the country from around the world to save them.

“The team is doing a great job and there is a positive reason to believe there will be positive results,” Dr. Amir Khalil, one of the volunteer veterinarians with FOUR PAWS International, tells PEOPLE of the lions. “I would say [I’m a] careful optimist.”

A little over a week ago, Sudan resident Osman Salih was horrified when he walked past Khartoum’s Al-Qureshi Park to find that the lions held there had not had adequate food or medicine for weeks, leaving them incredibly sick and emaciated. Park officials and veterinarians told AFP at the time that the lions’ conditions had deteriorated over the past few weeks as food became less available in the midst of Sudan’s economic and political crisis.

Salih shared gut-wrenching photos of the animals, calling on the online community for help, which ultimately grabbed the attention of FOUR PAWS — an international animal welfare non-profit that specializes in providing aid for animals who have been abused for entertainment, economic or scientific purposes.

“We were [made known] of the situation of the lions through social media with the horrible, horrible pictures of the lioness,” Khalil tells PEOPLE. “I was shocked.”

Sudan, Khartoum | 2020 01 27 | A team from FOUR PAWS led by veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil has visited Al Qurashi Family Park Zoo in the capital of Sudan after information about the condition of the animals kept there was published on social media and caused huge public outcry.
Marion Lombard/Four Paws
Sudan, Khartoum | 2020 01 20 | Zoo animals at the Al-Qurashi Zoo in Khartoum, Sudan.
Four Paws

With luck, the organization was able to contact Salih, who helped them acquire a permit from Sudanese authorities to fly in and help treat the lions, as well as create a sustainable action plan for the continued care of the animals.

“It was not easy to fly in the current political situation,” the vet explains, telling PEOPLE they had “organized a team from several countries” as well as the “needed medical equipment” in just 48 hours.

However, their rescue mission hit a roadblock when the team arrived in Sudan on Monday morning and some of their equipment was confiscated by customs agents.

“So this made our situation more challenging. We didn’t have all of the needed medicine,” Khalil says, though, they were luckily able to source some of what they lacked from locals.

Khalil — along with four other volunteers — immediately made their way to Al-Qureshi Park, where four lions (two male and two female) are still being held. There had originally been five lions living in the zoo, but one lioness reportedly died from starvation and the inadequate conditions at the park.

“It was for me shocking to see an animal in such condition,” Khalil tells PEOPLE of what he saw when he arrived.

He says that two of the lions were in really “bad condition,” while the other two show promise — with the vet believing they’ll be on a healthy path towards recovery by the end of the week.

Sudan, Khartoum | 2020 01 28 | Assessment and vet check of the animals at the Al-Qurashi Zoo in Khartoum, Sudan.
Atif Saad/Four Paws
Sudan, Khartoum | 2020 01 28 | Assessment and vet check of the animals at the Al-Qurashi Zoo in Khartoum, Sudan.
Atif Saad/Four Paws
Sudan, Khartoum | 2020 01 28 | Assessment and vet check of the animals at the Al-Qurashi Zoo in Khartoum, Sudan.
Atif Saad/Four Paws

“In one week, I think we will see the animals moving again,” he says. “But also, to gain that much muscle for the lion and stability of muscle and his energy might take several weeks.”

Khalil explained that the team has been giving the lions daily injections with vitamins, electrolytes and medicine — a task that takes several hours — in addition to making sure the big cats have enough food and water.

“I look to the eyes of the lion and I get a sign from them, ‘We are fighters, we want to survive,’ ” Khalil says. “They are very cooperative sick lions. They reacted positively [to the treatment]. So I hope we continue like this.”

Sudan, Khartoum | 2020 01 20 | Zoo animals at the Al-Qurashi Zoo in Khartoum, Sudan.
Four Paws

Since arriving in Sudan, Khalil tells PEOPLE the team has also received news from several other facilities in the country that also need their help rescuing neglected animals due to the country’s economic crisis. They hope to continue their stay in the country, after they are confident in the welfare of these four lions, to help as many facilities as they can.

“Humanity should not be divided [over this], and kindness should not be divided,” Khalil says. “A kind person should be kind to humans and also to animals.”

Anyone looking to support Khalil and his team’s relief efforts in Sudan can donate to FOUR PAWS International here.

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