With an innate love for animals that started when he was a young boy, Kevin Richardson should be lauded for his conservation prowess with lions, hyenas, and leopards. Best known as The Lion Whisperer, he spoke exclusively to Upscale Living magazine about what it takes to ensure the preservation and protection of these magnificent beasts.
KEVIN, TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF.
I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a suburb called Orange Grove. My fondness for animals was established at a young age and started with raising a baby bird with my father. I have always felt a connectedness with animals, which made me want to become a vet. I didn’t get into veterinary science with my matric results, so instead, I did a BSc intending to reapply. Ultimately my BSc led me down a different path and having completed it, majoring in Anatomy and Physiology, I decided to pursue a career in the exercise field, including exercise physiology.
YOU HAVE HAD A LONGSTANDING LOVE FOR ANIMALS, STARTING AS ‘THE BIRDMAN FROM ORANGE GROVE.’
After raising the baby bird with my father at such a young age, birds became very close to my heart and still are. I’ve always admired how this species has managed to live closely with a man and yet remain free. Sadly, this is not the case with all bird species, and like other animals that pose a threat or conflict to man, they always lose this battle. As I was growing up in Orange Grove, more and more people caught wind of the fact that I was the one to bring all the sick, injured, or baby birds too. Before I knew it, my parents’ home became a rehabilitation and rescue center for these birds. Birds that could be released were released and those that couldn’t stay. Before long, people in the neighborhood were referring to me as ‘The Bird Man of Orange Grove.’
THEN, IN 1998, YOU MET 7-MONTH OLD LION CUBS TAU, AND NAPOLEON AT THE LION PARK IN JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA, AND YOUR FATE (AND THEIRS) WERE SEALED.
I had no idea of the path I was about to travel down when I met Tau and Napoleon. All I knew back then was that I needed to see them again and again after the first encounter. I didn’t have a clue of the world I was about to enter but immediately knew that this was my calling. I visited Tau and Napoleon every day for the first six or seven months while still working at the gym, not knowing where this would lead.
When I initially got offered a part-time job at The Lion Park and then a full-time one, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Back then, before the internet and social media were at our fingertips, the information could not be gathered as quickly, and therefore much of what I learned about lions and their behavior was through my interactions of trial and error.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME ‘THE LION WHISPERER’?
A photographer had heard about me and asked me to do a photoshoot around 2006/2007. The pictures were then sold around the world to various news agencies, and before I knew it, headlines were calling me ‘The Lion Whisperer.’ The name stuck, and soon people were asking about this lion whisperer. The more I told people who I wasn’t a lion whisperer in the true sense of the meaning, the more it stuck. Eventually, a friend who had a marketing background asked me why I was so opposed to being called ‘The Lion Whisperer’ as it differentiated me in the marketplace and was instantly recognizable. He told me people don’t remember people’s names, but by titles like ‘The Lion Whisperer,’ they do. So, I decided I’d give it a try.
YOU ARE THE ENVY OF MANY PEOPLE; HOWEVER, YOUR JOB COMES WITH CERTAIN RISKS. APART FROM BEING EATEN ALIVE, WHAT ARE THE DANGERS YOU ARE FACED WITH DAILY?
Naturally, the main risk people think I face is being injured or killed by the animals I interact with. This was probably more of a real threat in my earlier, formative years as I was learning a lot in a short space of time with no mentor to bounce things off. Having worked now with lions, leopards, and hyenas for two decades, the risk factor does reduce but is always there and something I don’t take lightly.
My interactions with the animals in my care gives them a better quality of life in captivity. The whole world is becoming more conscious about our connectivity with animals and nature; this is no different from these predatory animals. Gone are the days that we should tolerate animals being put in cages, given food and water, and think that’s good enough. They need so much more than this, and the issue, when you are keeping animals such as lions in captivity, makes it that much more complicated. There are so many viewpoints surrounding this issue as with most things in the world today.
FOR YOU, THE BENEFITS PROBABLY FAR OUTWEIGH THE DANGERS.
Yes, they do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. Some people argue that my interactions send the wrong message and may encourage people to go and pet a lion or even buy a lion as a pet, but what I have seen is that my platform gives me a powerful voice to speak on behalf of the lions. These messages need to be portrayed. For instance, I don’t think I’d be doing this interview if it weren’t for the intimate relationships I have with the animals. When we analyze the comments and messages we receive daily, one can immediately see the positive impact that we are having on educating people on the plight of the captive and wild lions in the world.
Many people from around the world write in to tell us that if it weren’t for me, they would’ve had no idea lions were being bred in South Africa for tourists to pet and walk with and that they later got sold off to be hunted in what’s known as ‘Canned Lion Hunting.’ They also tell us they didn’t realize that wild populations of lions were so severely threatened and that their numbers had declined to such alarming levels. Again, information that would not have been relayed if it wasn’t for what I do.
Furthermore, we have seen unintended positive consequences of my relationships with the animals, such as a man paralyzed in combat writing to us to tell us that if it weren’t for my YouTube videos, he would’ve committed suicide and that the videos have brought him such joy, inspiration, and purpose.
HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO BUILD THIS INCREDIBLE BOND WITH YOUR LIONS?
Like any relationship, it takes time and effort. What I find lacking in the world today is the ability of people to commit and persevere at something. This pertains to jobs, relationships, exercise, and so many other things. We live in a world of instant gratification, and if we don’t get what we want, we simply make excuses and move on. It should come as no surprise that a relationship that spans 20 years took 20 years to nurture and build, just as it would with a human.
YOU SEEM TO HAVE A VERY SPECIAL BOND WITH MEG & AMY. WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITES (I KNOW, IT’S LIKE HAVING A FAVORITE CHILD)
I have a special relationship with Meg and Amy. However, there are many other lions in the pride that I also share an incredible connection with. It just so happened that these two ladies have been a hit with the people. They seem to have an ‘on-screen charm,’ whereas some of the others aren’t as good on camera. And yes, indeed, there are no favorites.
I WOULD LOVE TO KNOW WHAT THE LION’S MANE FEELS LIKE – IS IT SOFT AND FURRY, OR COARSE? AND THE COAT?
A lion’s mane is somewhat wiry and course. The coat is pretty much like that of a short-haired dog when they are adults, and it is more fluffy when they are cubs. They lose this softness when they are around twelve months or so.
THE BLACK LEOPARDS! THEY ARE MAGNIFICENT!
Yes, they are, but I think that like most unusual color variations, people obsess. I often say that if the world only had black leopards and a standard color variant popped up, people would go crazy. It’s human nature to gravitate towards the unusual or unique.
YOUR TAKE ON CUB ENCOUNTERS AND CAPTIVE BREEDING THAT EVENTUALLY TURN INTO CANNED LION HUNTING?
This is a subject very close to my heart. For many years, I was unwittingly playing a part in this industry. Without overthinking about it, I started working with lions, lions that were part of the petting industry. What many people don’t realize, including me at the time, is how big this industry is. You will hear many stories as to what happens to the cubs and surplus lions, some so convincing that you most probably will buy into them. I have sucked in very quickly myself, and my relationships with the animals didn’t help me.
In many ways, people almost always assume that because they see you with an animal in a picture must mean that it’s your animal. The fact is that this is far from the truth, and this complicates matters even more now because you can never just take a step back and analyze things objectively as you are emotionally involved.
Invariably there are people higher up making business decisions, and the animals fall into this decision-making process. People always like to simplify things, and I’ve been asked many times as to why I remained at a place that was involved. The answer is simple. I had forged bonds with many, many animals over the years, and I wasn’t prepared to just walk away without taking them with me. With no money to buy the animals, to build enclosures and land to put them, I was pretty much stuck with two real options. Leave or stay. I decided to stay as I thought that I could affect change. Sadly, I was wrong as the demand for cubs to be petted in South Africa is simply too great.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no appetite from the South African government to more strictly regulate the breeding of lions in captivity and instead look to condone or turn a blind eye to the ever-increasing facilities that breed lions. Currently, there are an estimated 260 lion breeding facilities in South Africa, with around 7,000-8,000 lions being kept (some argue closer to 12,000) and yearly, approximately 1,000 lions bred in this industry get hunted in varying degrees of ‘canned’ hunts. These words are taboo in the pro lion hunting circles, and the preferred term is ‘captive bred’ lion hunt.
There’s an old saying that says, ‘you can put as much lipstick as you want on a pig, but at the end of the day, it’s still a pig.’ So, by the same vein, if a lion is hunted, that doesn’t stand a chance of evading the hunter, no matter how small or big the area or whether the lion is human imprinted or not, it’s still in my opinion’ canned.’
A big issue for me, though in this whole industry, are the lies tourists are told when they pet and walk with these lion cubs. Story upon story is told, from mothers neglecting cubs to facilities saying that they keep all the lions they breed and offer for petting. They don’t hold up to scrutiny; however, they are enough to appease the tourist asking the questions, and thus the demand continues.
If one purely does the maths, you’ll soon realize that there simply cannot be enough good homes for surplus lions to go to and eventually will find their way into the lion bone trade and ‘canned’ hunting trade and facilities where the lion’s welfare become a considerable concern. Saying you are keeping all the lions you breed is not a good enough answer, because at the rate lions breed, you will be sitting with a huge problem in no time at all and then have the added expenses of having to care for them properly, which costs run up very quickly. Economically it makes no sense, and businesses simply don’t operate that way. Therefore, the welfare of these animals becomes a significant concern.
HOW CAN THE KILLING OF THESE BEAUTIFUL BEASTS STOP?
The demand needs to stop, but this is a really big ask as we have so many role players in this industry.
First, there is the breeding of lions for the petting and walking with the lion’s industry. Parallel to this, we have lion farmers breeding lions for the trophy hunting industry and also the lion bone trade. Lion bones are sold legally to the Far East as substitutes for tiger bone.
Sometimes they are passed off as tiger bones. In July 2018, the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa upped the quota of lion skeletons for export from 800 to 1,500. This is to supply the increasing demand in countries such as PDR Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China for the bones for ‘traditional medicine.’
There is also alongside this, the wild lion market where trophy hunters come out to hunt wild lions throughout Africa. Currently, the quota for wild lions is around 10 per year in South Africa.
YOU ARE SEEN BY YOUR LIONS AS ‘PART OF THE PRIDE’ AND YOU ALSO PUBLISHED A BOOK WITH THAT TITLE. WHERE CAN WE GET OUR HANDS ON A COPY?
The book is available on Amazon, and people can download two free chapters from the book from my Foundation’s website, www.kevinrichardsonfoundation.org.
WHY SHOULD PEOPLE NOT DO WHAT YOU DO?
I have never said people shouldn’t do what I do; however, I’ve always cautioned that the relationships and experience I have, has spanned decades and the commitment I’ve made to the lives and well-being of these animals is for the remainder of their lives. Many people don’t think long-term when they delve into working with or keeping animals, and this extends to domestic pets as well. Many simply act on a whim and don’t think about the consequences of their actions. My intimate approach to working with the animals does require certain chutzpah and understanding of risk, and that’s why I would advise against doing what I do.
YOU ALSO HAVE HYENAS THAT YOU HAVE A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP WITH. TELL US WHAT IS IT LIKE TO SPEND TIME WITH THESE MISUNDERSTOOD SCAVENGERS?
It’s worth pointing out that hyenas are not just scavengers, and in many wilderness areas, hunt more than they scavenge. In many cases, they hunt more successfully than lions.
I had the same dim view of hyenas, like many people out there, until I got the opportunity to work with some. I quickly understood that I was dealing with a highly intelligent animal. This inspired me to read up as much as I could on them. I was surprised to learn how sophisticated and complex their society was, and that they weren’t just these pesky, smelly scavengers put on earth to give lions a hard time and be a villain to filmmakers.
My views on them changed overnight, and since my first encounter, I’ve been making it part of my mission to show people a side of hyenas, they can warm up to and grow to love. I’ve noticed a mega change in people’s views, and when I post pictures of hyenas nowadays, I can sometimes get the same amount of people liking the image as that of a lion.
I SUPPOSE YOU END UP WITH LOTS OF DIRTY CLOTHES WHEN YOU ARE ROLLING ABOUT WITH YOUR PRIDE. ARE LIONS SMELLY CREATURES? HAVE YOU CONSIDERED GETTING A DETERGENT SPONSORSHIP?
Haha! Yes, getting dirty is part of the job. If you’re one of those people who always wants to be clean, then this is not for you. Lions, leopards, and hyenas don’t smell bad at all. There are several myths out there as to how foul they smell; however, this usually is when they’ve been devouring a carcass. Hyenas have some bad habits just like domestic dogs and love to roll in putrid smells, vomit, and other interesting behaviors. However, they also love to bathe and do so whenever water is available. Detergent sponsorship is an excellent idea!
I have been fortunate enough to have the clothing brand Craghoppers sponsor me. The gear they supply me with is comfortable, functional, and tough; it stands up to the punishment it gets given. But alas, even these garments have a short lifespan when working with lion and leopard. The hyenas are easier on the clothing but love to chew on my shoes; thankfully, the shoe brand Zamberland came to the party there.
YOU ARE A SOUGHT-AFTER SPEAKER AND HAVE TALKED ABOUT YOUR CONSERVATION EFFORTS IN MANY COUNTRIES. WHICH COUNTRY HAS LEFT A LASTING IMPRESSION AND WHY?
I’m always fond of visiting countries around the world as it makes you appreciate what you have in your own country. So often we moan about all the problems we have here, only to travel and discover that things are not as bad as they seem. Traveling puts things into perspective. I’m not sure I have a favorite as each country offers something special. Still, if I had to choose, I’d say Italy is very high up there, especially Rome, because of the archaeological remnants of ancient Rome all around the town interspersed with modern architecture. You can almost feel and smell gladiators fighting lions and tigers in the Coliseum and can only let your imagination run wild as to the types of lives people led back then.
IN 2018, YOU LAUNCHED THE KEVIN RICHARDSON FOUNDATION, A CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN TO PRESERVE HABITAT AND PROTECT LIONS. HOW CAN PEOPLE GET INVOLVED IN THIS WONDERFUL INITIATIVE?
The Kevin Richardson Foundation has been an initiative close to my heart for many years. I always wanted to set something up that could make a real difference in the conservation arena. The Foundation has four main aims: to empower/educate people, especially communities on the fringes of wilderness areas and allow them to see a tangible benefit from protecting wildlife systems, to acquire and protect habitat for wildlife as habitat loss is probably the single biggest threat to wild animals, to create a community of lion conservation collaborators worldwide and to maintain and protect the sanctuary and help bring an end to ‘canned’ hunting.
The first project we kicked off was the Land4Lions campaign, which is a Thundafund crowdfunding campaign to raise money to purchase the land the sanctuary currently resides on and to purchase the land surrounding it, which is presently home to wild lions too. We have seen such a tremendous response to this campaign and hope that instead of just being a one-off campaign, it could become a movement in the future.
ANY EXCITING PROSPECTS FOR THE LION WHISPERER ON THE HORIZON?
Many things are happening as a result of the formation of the Foundation, including working with some great organizations and people like The AfriCat Foundation in Namibia, doing great work to conserve and protect the wild lions in the Etosha region and with HSH Princess Charlene of Monaco. She has an incredible passion for South Africa, its people, and its wildlife.