Kevin Richardson is known as the 'Lion Whisper', his message is important as our lions are in danger.
When Kevin Richardson steps through the gate onto a stretch of pristine South African grassland, time appears to ripple. The disturbance causes a momentary abatement in the roar of the cicadas; the only sound is the crunch of dry grass under his boots. Then the air shivers, and half a metric ton of flesh and muscle bursts from the veld: an adult lion and lioness, their movements so fluid they seem poured from the bush. Before Richardson can prepare himself, the cats paw his head and bring him down.
The lions flop on top of him like kittens at play.
Over the past 17 years, millions have watched similar encounters on news segments and nature channel shows: Richardson, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, attacked by several of the planet’s most fearsome predators. Just as viewers brace themselves for a bloodbath, a love-in ensues. No number of YouTube clips, however, can rival a live performance. The animals smell like dust and death. They are not tame; they are untameable. Somehow, because of a skill or intuition he cannot name, Richardson appeals to the softer elements of their nature.
No animal behaviourist has ever endorsed Richardson’s activities—the prevailing theory is that lions are too unpredictable to be trusted, no matter how docile they may appear. The more persistent criticisms come from park rangers who often face considerable danger from large carnivores while on patrol.
Two years ago, a ranger at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a preserve bordering Botswana, barely survived an attack where he was dragged off an open truck by a lion that grabbed his leg between its teeth. It’s the kind of threat 27-year-old Mosa Masupe faces every day.
Masupe is a ranger in Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve, home to several prides. He has followed Richardson’s career ever since he first surfaced in the media in 2000 as the “Lion Whisperer,” and like many rangers who hear about Richardson, Masupe believes a gruesome mauling is inevitable. “Those lions will kill him,” he says.
Richardson has described himself as a self-taught zoologist, but he is something deeper—a medium between the world of wild predators and those who present a terminal threat to their survival.
In the wild, lions are menaced from three main sectors: the relentless spread of agricultural land, in which 75 per cent of the animals’ natural habitat has been converted into grazing fields for cattle; wildlife clashes, where farmers kill hundreds of lions a year in retaliation for attacks on livestock; and endemic poaching by locals, who can make the equivalent of their annual incomes—about $6,000—by shooting a single lion and selling the meat and bones on the black market.
As a result, lion populations are being decimated. In 1950, over 200,000 roamed Africa’s vast savannahs. The most recent estimates put the figure at 35,000. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature currently classifies the species as “vulnerable.”
"Hunters pay as much as $58,000 to gun down a full-grown male and up to $10,000 for a female."
But as bad as things are for wild lions, notes Richardson, life is just as tenuous for the 5,000-plus in captivity in South Africa, raised to be slaughtered like chickens. (With the country’s wild lion population averaging 3,000, that means the majority of South Africa’s lions are in cages.)
Most captive lions begin their careers as cubs on breeding farms, enjoying the attention of countless visitors. The cats will keep generating money until they’re six months old, at which point tourists will pay as much as $800 for an experience called “walking with,” in which a handler and his guests stroll through a patch of veld with a lion. Twelve months later, no longer adorable, they become fodder for tourists in a practice known as “canned hunting.”
In 2007 alone, 16,394 foreign hunters arrived to kill an estimated 46,000 animals, an industry the government considers “a sustainable utilization of natural resources.” According to one report, 5,892 dead lions were exported from the country between 2001 and 2011. The majority were slaughtered in canned hunts.
In his videos, Richardson’s roughhousing showcases these “natural resources” as warm-blooded creatures to an international audience. As his YouTube views rack up, so, too, does his ability to publicise the plight of captive lions and, more broadly, the perils facing a shrinking wild population. Wrestling lions, however, is the easy part. Saving them is the real challenge.
Richardson pilots a four-by-four through the dirt tracks of Welgedacht Game Reserve, 50 kilometres north of the South African capital of Pretoria.
A year ago, with the help of donors, the Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary was established here, on a privately owned plot comprising 1,200 hectares of rolling grassland. The sanctuary, which also includes hyenas and black leopards, is Richardson’s first opportunity to run a park entirely how he sees fit. Thirteen electrified enclosures, each about a hectare in size, shelter Richardson’s 26 lions of various ages, many of which previously lived at Lion Park.
Richardson parks his four-by-four and makes for one of the enclosures. Two lionesses, Meg and Amy, lope up, and he’s on the ground in seconds. Richardson has known the sisters for 11 years, but after he left Lion Park, they were sold to a breeder and joined a pride that was too large. Scared they were headed to a hunting shop, Richardson purchased the animals back.
Retrieving Meg and Amy brought home the importance of being in control of his own facility. Outside the sanctuary, the pair would likely be pawns in a lucrative industry where hunters pay as much as $58,000 to gun down a full-grown male and up to $10,000 for a female.
The experience also inspired him to redouble his efforts at curtailing the canned hunt—joining conservation groups in directly lobbying the South African government; raising awareness through fundraising and social media campaigns; giving seminars across the country and abroad about the more repugnant aspects of the killings; and working with wildlife NGOs, most notably Protecting African Wildlife Conservation Trust, that have outreach programs with landowners.
The fear is that the industry is simply too profitable to stop locally. Richardson’s hopes—and the hopes of environmentalists around the world—rest with the U.S.
"It’s totally legal with permits to hunt them and export the trophies."
Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to look into whether the African lion requires protection under its Endangered Species Act, which would prevent hunters without permits from bringing lion trophies into the country.
The one-year review of the classification would also likely influence whether the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) decides to lift African lions to a CITES 1 categorization—also under review.
“Lions are currently CITES 2,” explains Richardson, “which means it’s totally legal with permits to hunt them and export the trophies.”
CITES 1 categorization would ban the exportation of heads, pelts, meat and bones to the United States, as well as the other 178 countries that implement CITES. Considering that the U.S. is by far the canned hunt’s largest customer base, “it would stop the industry in an instant,” says Richardson.
The last thing Richardson wants, however, is to end up with more lions in his sanctuary, a big reason his females are on contraception. His aim is for the captive population to plummet, and that means placing a nationwide moratorium on lion breeding—something advocated by many conservation groups, including Four Paws, an international animal-welfare organisation that runs a lion sanctuary in South Africa.
Richardson leans back against a now supine Meg, ruffling her ears. “If only tourists did the math and said, ‘Hey, where do all these cubs end up?’” he says. “Would you come and pet a cub knowing that, as an adult, he’s going to get slaughtered? Would you be happy?”