See How Syrian Zoo Animals Escaped a War-Ravaged City
Amir Khalil and his rescue team scanned the horizon for the convoy as they waited anxiously at the Turkish border, sweltering in the 100-degree July heat. They would be on edge until it arrived safely—carrying the latest gaunt, traumatized victims from Syria’s six-year civil war.
These were four-legged refugees: three lions, two tigers, two Asian black bears, and two spotted hyenas that somehow had survived at Magic World, a sprawling theme park modeled after Disneyland on the outskirts of Aleppo.
The city has seen some of the worst fighting since the civil war broke out in 2011. A four-year offensive—dubbed “Syria’s Stalingrad” by the press—pounded Aleppo with relentless airstrikes that allegedly included chemical weapons attacks in 2016. The offensive reduced the city to rubble.
Magic World lies in an area controlled by al Qaeda-linked Sunni rebels who have used the four square-mile complex as a base. It has been shelled repeatedly, including a raid earlier this year by the Russians.
There were “maybe 300 animals” in Magic World when the war broke out, according to the zoo’s owner, Azzam Massassati. Since then scores have died in bombings or were caught in the crossfire. Some got sick or starved to death. Others may have been sold on the black market.
Khalil, an Egyptian veterinary surgeon whose soft voice belies his stature, masterminded the effort to save Magic World’s last 13 survivors. For 23 years he has run high-risk missions for the Austria-based animal welfare group Four Paws, saving animals from disaster areas and war zones.
The rescue took months of intricate planning and diplomacy, drawing on help from ambassadors, government officials, international aid organizations, military advisers, combatants, international security companies, and many others facilitating anonymously in Syria. It was “basically a military operation for animals,” says Sybelle Foxcroft, a conservationist with the nonprofit Cee4life whom Khalil enlisted to advise the team.
The war has carved Syria into zones controlled by many opposing groups: government forces under President Bashar al-Assad, Syrian Kurds, and several opposing Islamist factions. Intervention by the Russians, Americans, Turks, and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah Islamists has further complicated the conflict.
To move the animals safely on the 93-mile road trip from Aleppo through an active war zone to the Çobanbey border crossing and into Turkey, Syrians on the ground needed to negotiate support from factions and local warlords—and they had to plan alternate routes and monitor the ever-changing military situation.
Much could go wrong. The convoy might be stopped or turned back by Kalashnikov-carrying sentries at a dozen checkpoints. The vehicles could be bombed by Syrian, Russian, American, or Turkish warplanes. Snipers along the road might open fire on them. People or animals could be kidnapped: It was rumored that Hayat Tahrir Al-sham, a Syrian Sunni jihadist group, would demand $200,000 to allow the convoy to cross the border.
Even an uneventful trip would be slow: The war had reduced roads to pocked, rutted gravel, many of them laced with land mines.
The plan was to travel from Aleppo northwest to Afrin, a tense checkpoint leading into the Kurdish-held zone. There the convoy would switch personnel for a new team allowed entry by the Kurds and head northeast to the Turkish border. After medical evaluation and a brief holdover in Turkey, the animals would be airlifted to permanent sanctuaries in Jordan.
On July 20 fierce fighting erupted between rival Sunni factions Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir Al-sham in the area around Magic World. Control shifted, new checkpoints sprang up, and the mission was delayed to renegotiate safe passage. The team tracked bombings, firefights, and other military action online in near real time—crucial independent information, said Yavor Gechev, a member of the Four Paws rescue team, “because you could never trust anyone.”
With the situation deteriorating, Khalil opted to launch the mission the next day, hoping for quiet because it was Friday, Muslim holy day.
Magic World’s zookeeper, Omar Khalifa, worked overnight with four others to load the animals onto a 45-foot tractor trailer—a dangerous and strenuous task without drugs to anesthetize them or heavy equipment to lift the 900-pound metal transport cages.
The rebel-held Green Zone around Magic World posed the greatest danger. “The first 25 miles out of Aleppo are really high risk,” Khalil said. The team had heard that local rebels planned to confiscate the animals and spread heroic propaganda that they were saving them from smugglers. “This information helped us develop ‘anti-plans’—Plan B and C and D,” he said. Two backup plans provided alternate routes, with 34 people stationed in three zones—and a decoy convoy was dispatched in a different direction.
The real convoy left at first light on July 21, preceded by a surveillance car and accompanied by a protection vehicle.
Near Afrin, Kurdish officers refused to let the vehicles pass unless the Turkish government allowed 250 of their wounded soldiers into the country for medical treatment. The team refused to negotiate: This was about saving animals. The officers relented, and nine hours later the animals arrived at the border’s demilitarized zone, where a Turkish truck was waiting.
Khalil’s team mobilized with the speed of a pit crew, shouting directions in Arabic, English, Turkish, and German. Free Syrian Army soldiers slung their rifles and pitched to help as officials with Turkey’s forestry and water ministry observed. That Turkey had agreed to open the border for animals coming from Syria owes much to lobbying efforts by the well-known Turkish animal activist Okan Oflaz.
“We had one hour to move the nine crates from one truck to the other,” Khalil said. It had required top-level clearance for the Turks to open their border for even that much time. When the cages were loaded, everyone, including Syrians and Turks—sworn enemies—hugged and posed for snapshots.
The gate on the Turkish side of the border slid open, and the truck joined three vehicles carrying the crew, food, water, medicine, and a mobile medical laboratory. It took 24 hours to drive the 745 miles to a government-run animal rehabilitation facility in Karacabey, in northeast Turkey. It was the rescuers’ third day without sleep.
But a second rescue operation still loomed. The first convoy could carry only nine cages, leaving two more lions and two dogs—huskies—trapped at Magic World.
THEY SAID IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE
After Libya’s President Muammar Qaddafi fell in 2011, Amir Khalil had fed some 700 starving animals in the Tripoli zoo until the government could take over. In 2016 he evacuated 15 survivors from cages in Gaza’s Khan Younis Zoo that were strewn with the mummified carcasses of long-dead animals. In March 2017 he pulled a lion and a bear out of Iraq’s Mosul Zoo, from a part of the city he described as “a horror movie.” When Four Paws announced that rescue, its Facebook page was inundated with pleas to go to Aleppo.
Khalil investigated. Sybelle Foxcroft had learned that Magic World’s survivors were in desperate condition and that Khalifa, the zookeeper, was there only intermittently. Whenever fighting broke out, the animals were trapped without food or water in their rusting, filthy enclosures amid machine gun fire and explosions.
Khalil contacted international security companies for advice. They told him it would be impossible to save the animals. “They called this rebel-controlled area between Aleppo and the Turkish border a ‘no-go,’” he said.
But Khalil is not a man to give up easily. He became a diplomatic whirlwind, contacting people from across the globe who could make this complicated, risky rescue possible. Two animal sanctuaries in Jordan quickly started building new enclosures. Then Eric Margolis, a journalist who had covered numerous wars and runs an animal welfare foundation, stepped up with financial support. He was appalled, he said, by the thought of “these poor wretched animals caught in the middle of this ghastly war in Syria.”
Before Four Paws could move the animals through Green Zone checkpoints, the local mufti—the administrator who headed the region’s Sharia court—would need proof of ownership. He’d demanded a videotaped statement from the zoo’s owner, Massassati, saying that he’d donated his animals to Four Paws so they could be taken abroad for medical care.
Massassati speaks with pride about Aalim al-Sahar, or Magic World, which he named for the magic of nature, a controversial choice because the idea of magic runs counter to Islamic beliefs.
The attraction had taken eight years to build and featured 50 rides, restaurants, an aquarium—and a zoo with 70 Nile crocodiles, 10 tigers, llamas, cheetahs, monkeys, deer, birds, turtles, snakes, leopards, lions, and many other species.
By early 2017 the zoo’s 300 animals had dwindled to about 50.
In April, Khalil and Foxcroft contacted Massassati, who years before had fled Syria for the U.S. They told him they’d learned that two tigers were seriously ill. A leopard had a wound crawling with maggots. A bear was sick. All the animals were in precarious health.
But Massassati balked at Four Paws’s request to move them for reasons that remain unknown. He said he’d left Khalifa, the zookeeper, with enough money to feed the animals for 15 years but that the man had been selling off anything of value at Magic World, including endangered animals. On that list were “two jaguars [sold] to Iraq about two years ago” and earlier this year, a rare white tiger. “He sold him for almost $40,000 to one of my friends in Lebanon. The guy called me. He said, ‘I got your white tiger. Did you get your money?’” According to Massassati, he didn’t receive any of it.
Khalifa admitted selling the animals abroad. All were shipped without the permits required by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), the body that regulates global wildlife trade. He did it, he said, to get money to feed the other animals.
Weeks passed, and Massassati kept stalling. Four Paws asked a local vet in Aleppo to check on the animals. The vet, who must remain unidentified for his protection, texted pictures of a bear in a cage strewn with mortar fragments, a listless tiger lying in the dust, frail deer.
By June the two ailing tigers and the deer were dead. The vet and other Syrian sources reported that two other tigers and the monkeys had disappeared.
Even the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham rebels appreciated the plight of the animals and offered to escort them out of the Green Zone once Four Paws took ownership. Khalil’s rescue team was ready. It all hung on Massassati.
Just 16 animals now remained.
In mid-June Khalil flew to Louisiana to impress on Massassati face-to-face that if he didn’t donate the animals to Four Paws, the last animals would die or be sold to wildlife dealers. Massassati relented, and Khalil left with signed papers and the videotaped statement that would liberate Magic World’s last caged inhabitants.
By the time zookeeper Khalifa and his team loaded the truck on July 21, three leopards had gone missing and only 13 animals were left.
RESPITE IN TURKEY
Heavy fighting near Magic World delayed the the second rescue, for the two lions and the two huskies. It was now more urgent than ever because the Syrian vet had discovered that one of the lions, Dana, was pregnant.
Khalifa and the convoy finally left in the middle of the afternoon on July 28, another 100-degree Friday. They were stopped at the Afrin checkpoint by Kurdish soldiers who threatened to arrest—and kill—Khalifa. They claimed that his dead brother had fought for an al Qaeda-linked faction.
It took hours of wrangling by Four Paws to arrange for Khalifa’s release and return to Aleppo. Night fell, increasing the danger on the roads, and the convoy was still far from the frontier. As it neared 7 p.m., when the Çobanbey crossing closes, Khalil begged the border police to wait, somehow convincing them. The truck finally rolled up at 9:15. The team swiftly transferred the animals to a Turkish vehicle and left for Karacabey.
When they arrived, all 13 animals were dehydrated and severely malnourished. Their wasted, tick-covered bodies were scarred and matted in filth. Many had open sores. They were given blood tests, eye exams and ultrasounds, checked for parasites, and vaccinated. Dana’s ultrasound showed she was carrying two cubs; she could go into labor at any time.
Sultan, a skeletal year-old tiger, was in critical condition. When the vets anesthetized him to conduct tests, he flat-lined in cardiac arrest. The scene transformed into an ER. They injected a drug to counteract the anesthesia and adrenaline to jumpstart his heart, pounded his chest, and pumped air into his lungs. He started breathing.
The male hyena’s vision was clouded by cataracts; the female had severe kidney disease. The three lions and the other tiger were emaciated but reasonably healthy under the circumstances. The bears had badly damaged teeth, the result of a poor diet—and biting the bars of their cages out of fear or boredom.
According to Khalil, animals in war zones, like people, suffer psychological trauma from the death and destruction and the constant stress of explosions and gunfire. “Some will bear those injuries years after the physical wounds have healed,” he said.
Khalil expected to quickly obtain health certificates and permits from the Turkish government to move the animals to Jordan. The hyenas and huskies would go to New Hope Centre, outside Amman, built by the Princess Alia Foundation. The lions, tigers, and bears would go to the Al Ma’wa sanctuary, in northern Jordan’s forested hills. The largest animal rehabilitation facility in the Middle East, Al Ma’wa was founded jointly in 2015 by Four Paws and the princess’s foundation. The tigers would eventually go to Holland, to the Felida Big Cat Centre, which specializes in traumatized animals that need intensive medical treatment.
Three weeks after the first rescue, Turkish officials still hadn’t issued export permits for the animals, confined all that time in small transport cages.
The paperwork finally came through, and photographer Steve Winter and I flew to Istanbul to accompany the animals to Jordan. Late in the afternoon on August 10, another searingly hot day, we met up with the team at a cargo terminal at the Istanbul airport. Khalil climbed atop the cages and doused the animals with huge jugs of water to cool them off. Each cage was then forklifted into a massive loading area that swarmed with people—a cacophony of clanging metal, machines, and people shouting above the din.
The lions roared. The bears paced incessantly, a sign of war-induced psychological damage. Sultan sagged in his cage. Khalil administered a cortisone shot to sustain him through the flight. The male hyena trembled, shaking harder with each concussive ring of metal on metal. He, too, was given cortisone, along with sugar water and food to stabilize his blood sugar. His tremors subsided.
The animals were to fly on an 8:30 p.m. Royal Jordanian Airlines commercial flight. As the cages were about to be moved to the tarmac for loading, the team was informed that some were 10 inches too high to fit in the plane’s hold. A frantic scurry unearthed an electric grinding tool. The strongest members of the team loosened the wheels, sparks flying, and pounded them off the cages. Onlookers applauded as each wheel fell to the ground. The pilot held the packed flight until midnight.
We landed in Amman just after 3 a.m. and were whisked through customs to the cargo area, where the cages were waiting, linked together like a circus train, shrouded in ropes, waiting to be loaded onto two tractor trailers.
THE HOME STRETCH
We drove about an hour to New Hope, where Princess Alia Al Hussein was waiting to greet us. “It’s an old Biblical saying that Jordan is a country for people from other places, which has proved true throughout history,” she said, beaming. “It seems to be doing it with other species these days, too.”
Ten men hefted the hyenas’ heavy, wheel-less cages to the their new enclosure. Inside, the male walked the perimeter three times; the female plopped into a large water trough. They quickly became inseparable. The center’s resident dogs welcomed the huskies, with much sniffing, barking, and tail-wagging.
Princess Alia joined us—along with police and military escorts—on the trip to the Al Ma’wa sanctuary. The complex sits atop a hill cloaked in olive trees that offer shade from the scorching desert sun.
Each animal responded differently to release. A bear stepped into his spacious new enclosure, gobbled a meal of fruit and vegetables,
and started chewing on olive trees. One male lion gingerly explored his new yard. Another sprinted in wide circles. A female, thought to be his mate, was released into an adjoining cement building so they could get reacquainted—and she could heal. Her side was covered in gruesome polka-dots—fur here, open sores and bare skin there—possibly caused by shrapnel, infection, or parasites, said Diana Bernas, who heads animal care at Al Ma’wa.
Sultan the tiger lay limp, unable—or unwilling—to move. Dana, the pregnant lion, walked into her cement house and curled up in the straw, utterly spent.
By evening Sultan had ventured outdoors and lay sleeping in the shade. The tigress padded over to her new pool, lowered herself in, and closed her eyes. Then she walked over to us making chuffing noises—a tiger hello—and lay down to groom herself.
When the keepers checked Dana the next morning, a tiny, almost-white cub lay snuggled beside her. She’d waited until she arrived in a quiet, safe place to give birth. The staff never saw the second cub.
The survivor, Hajar, held on for a month before becoming the last of Magic World’s war casualties. She had a weakened immune system and poorly developed organs, probably from her mother’s bad diet in Syria.
By the time the last animal was unloaded in Al-Ma’wa, Khalil looked exhausted. The deep circles under his eyes betrayed the stress of planning this months-long operation, which on the ground had had mushroomed from five days into four grueling weeks.
Khalil calls these 13 creatures “animal ambassadors.” For them, he said, “people put down their weapons. A small, dedicated group were able to move wild animals amid all this fighting.
“These animals can light a little candle of hope in all this darkness.”
Sharon Guynup writes about wildlife and environmental issues and is co-author of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat. She is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a National Geographic Explorer. Follow her on Twitter.