Thirty-three lions rescued from circuses in Peru and Colombia are heading back to their homeland to live out the rest of their lives in a private sanctuary in South Africa.

The largest-ever airlift of lions will take place Friday and was organized and paid for by Animal Defenders International. The Los Angeles-based group has for years worked with lawmakers in the two South American countries to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, where they often are held in appalling conditions.

In a statement, the group said the first group of nine lions will be collected in the capital Bogota on a McDonnell Douglas cargo plane which will pick up 24 more in Lima before heading to Johannesburg.