Lions living in natural habitats, hunting antelopes, wildebeests and zebras as they’re meant to do, roaming wild in prides rather than in arbitrary groups in captivity—this is way of life that Kevin Richardson, “The Lion Whisperer” of South Africa, envisions for the big cats that he has grown to love. The founder of a wildlife sanctuary bearing his name northeast of Johannesburg, Richardson is known for his personal interactions with the lions living on his reserve. His YouTube channel and recent photos show him walking, snuggling and relaxing with the animals as if he were one of them.
Richardson acknowledges that his flagrant lack of precaution around these powerful creatures might be misconstrued by many people. Some see it contributing to the dangerous practice of keeping big cats as pets. But Richardson emphasizes the unique relationship he has with these specific lions and his keen insight on lion behavior. He’s known some of them since they were cubs and has had the opportunity to learn their personalities and triggers.
In the 1990’s, Richardson grew so close to two cubs at a tourist attraction, Lion Park, where he worked that he convinced the owner to retrieve the two after they’d been sold to a breeder. This experience highlighted for him the deadly link between cub petting and canned hunting. At Lion Park, people could pay to pet and cuddle with cubs. When the young lions became too large and dangerous for the practice, many were sold to the canned hunting industry. Here they were fenced in and sometimes sedated for “hunting” by people – mostly American – who paid tens of thousands of dollars to kill them. The two industries persist today throughout Africa.
Those two lions he saved now live at his sanctuary along with a few dozen others. Richardson knows lions like these can’t survive in the wild, not only because they’ve relied on humans their entire lives, but also because the land available to wild lions is so limited.
The Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary aims to educate people on the future facing both wild and captive lions due to loss of habitat and the dual industries of cub petting and “canned hunting.” Ultimately, according to a Smithsonian Magazine profile on him, Richardson wants sanctuaries like his to be unnecessary.
A Scientific American article notes that increased development and agriculture to sustain Africa’s growing population have contributed to habitat loss. An International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) study notes that many wild lions are killed to protect livestock by ranchers living adjacent to the national parks. Illegal poaching for bones and pelts along with trophy hunting add to the depletion of wild populations. The IUCN study found a 43% decrease since 1993, leaving an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 lions outside of captivity.
So, the next time you see an image of Kevin Richardson hugging one of his less-than-tame lions, share it with friends and educate them on the plight of these majestic animals. Critics who think he’s advocating taming them simply don’t understand his mission.
Check out this great video of Richardson with his lions and to find out more about his project and efforts.