kevin richard­son, The Lion Whis­perer

Upscale Living Magazine - - Department Features - | By Heléne Ra­mack­ers

Kevin Richard­son spoke ex­clu­sively with Up­scale Liv­ing Mag­a­zine about what it takes to en­sure the preser­va­tion and pro­tec­tion of these mag­nif­i­cent beasts | Pho­to­graph Cour­tesy of Leti­cia Cox

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, did a BSc with the in­ten­tion of reap­ply­ing. 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 BIRD MAN 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 man and yet re­main free. Sadly, this is not the case with all bird spe-

The Lion Whis­perer

cies 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 to. 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 stayed. 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) WAS 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 whilst 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, in­for­ma­tion could not be gath­ered as quickly and there­fore much of what I learnt 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 to do a photo shoot around 2006/2007. The pic­tures were then sold around the world to var­i­ous news agen­cies and be­fore I knew it, there were head­lines call­ing me ‘The Lion Whis­perer.’ The name stuck and soon peo­ple were ask­ing about this lion whis­perer. The more I told peo­ple that 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 ON A DAILY BA­SIS?

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 with 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 com­plex. There are so many view­points sur­round­ing this is­sue like 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. There are some peo­ple that 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, the mes­sages that need to be por­trayed.

For in­stance, I don’t think I’d be do­ing this in­ter­view if it weren’t for my in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships I have with the an­i­mals. When we an­a­lyze the com­ments and mes­sages we re­ceive on a daily ba­sis, one can im­me­di­ately see the pos­i­tive im­pact that we are hav­ing on ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple to 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 wasn’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 know 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 wasn’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, truly 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 rather 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 AB­SO­LUTELY 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 nor­mal 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 think­ing too much about it, I started work­ing with li­ons, li­ons that were part of the pet­ting in­dus­try. What many peo­ple don’t re­al­ize, in­clud­ing my­self at the time, is how big this in­dus­try re­ally 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 was 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 fur­ther, 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 ef­fect 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 seem to con­done or turn a blind eye to the ever-in­creas­ing fa­cil­i­ties that breed li­ons. Cur­rently there’s 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 around 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. At the end of the day, they don’t hold up to scru­tiny, how­ever are enough to pla­cate 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/or ‘canned’ hunt­ing trade and/or fa­cil­i­ties where the li­ons wel­fare be­come a huge 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, wel­fare of these an­i­mals be­comes a ma­jor 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 li­ons 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 foun­da­tions 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 a 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, as 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 ac­tu­ally 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 pic­ture 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?

Ha ha! Yes, get­ting dirty is part of the job. If you’re one of those peo­ple that al­ways wants to be clean, then this is not for you. Li­ons, leop­ards and hye­nas ac­tu­ally don’t smell bad at all. There are sev­eral myths out there as

to how foul they smell, how­ever this is nor­mally 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. A 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, but if I re­ally 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 the 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 or 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 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 cur­rently is 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, that it could be­come a move­ment in the fu­ture.

ANY EX­CIT­ING PROSPECTS FOR THE LION WHIS­PERER ON THE HORI­ZON?

There are many things 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 who has an in­cred­i­ble pas­sion for South Africa, its peo­ple and its wildlife.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.