When Kevin Richardson steps through the gate and 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.
“Bobcat! Gabby!” he coos. “Come here, my babies!”
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, whose fans call him the Lion Whisperer, “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 untamable. Somehow, because of a skill or intuition he cannot name, 39-year-old Richardson appeals to the softer elements of their nature.
We have seen the likes of this before, and we know how it ends. Crocodile Hunter, Grizzly Man, Siegfried and Roy—all killed or injured by animals they claimed kinship with. Richardson, who has known these lions since they were babies, insists he’s different, but he is aware of the risks. “If I told you there are no issues associated with what I do, I’d be either a liar or mentally unstable,” he says as Bobcat nuzzles his neck.
No animal behaviorist has ever endorsed Richardson’s activities—the theory is that lions are too unpredictable to be trusted, no matter how docile they appear. “Those lions will kill him,” says Mosa Masupe, a ranger in Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve.
In 2001, a lion named Tsavo busted Richardson’s nose with a blow from its paw. Richardson’s arms and legs are mapped with scars. Even a gentle love bite could nick his jugular, leaving him to bleed out in the grass, alone.
Still, Richardson’s wife, Mandy, 33, with whom he has two small children, says, “I’m not really worried, because it’s all I know; it’s what he’s done since I met him.” For years, she worked as his public relations point person. “He’s so passionate about his work that it’s contagious,” she says.
In the grassland with me, Richardson says, “Have you seen any untoward movements from these lions? There’s no reason for me to hit them or subdue them. They’re lovable, social cats, man.”
Perhaps. But does lovable apply to wild creatures whose consciousness we cannot fathom? Or is it a case, as South African writer J. M. Coetzee once put it, of there being “no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another”?
Richardson describes himself as a self-taught zoologist, but he is more than that—he stands between the wild predators and those who threaten their survival. In the wild, lions are menaced three ways. First, the relentless spread of agricultural land has taken 75 percent of their habitat, depleting their prey base and leading to genetic isolation and inbreeding. Second, farmers kill hundreds of lions a year in retaliation for attacks on livestock. Third, the lions are poached by local hunters, who can make the equivalent of their annual incomes—about $6,000—by shooting a single animal and selling the meat and bones on the black market. (Lion bones are an acceptable substitute in Asian tiger bone wine, said to boost virility. A case of the potion, a status symbol for an exploding Chinese middle class, can fetch as much as $25,000 at auction.)
As a result, wild lion populations are being decimated. In 1950, more than 200,000 roamed Africa’s vast savannas. The most recent estimates put the figure at 35,000. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the species as “vulnerable.” Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University in North Carolina who has spent his career studying present-day extinctions, calls it a full-fledged crisis. “What sort of planet do we want to hand to our children and grandchildren?” he asks.
As bad as things are for wild lions, Richardson says, life is worse for the 5,000-plus in captivity in South Africa. (With the country’s wild lion population averaging just 3,000, 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. When the animals are six months old, 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.
But 12 months later, no longer adorable, lions become fodder for a lucrative practice known as canned hunting—the animals are kept in a confined area to make them easier to shoot. Tourists will pay up to $58,000 to gun down a full-grown male and up to $10,000 for a female. In 2007 alone, 16,394 foreign hunters arrived to kill an estimated 46,000 captive animals, feeding an industry the South African government considers “a sustainable utilization of natural resources.” According to one report, 5,892 dead lions (trophies) were exported between 2001 and 2011. In his popular YouTube videos, Richardson hopes to showcase these “natural resources” as warm-blooded creatures to an international audience. He’s not just playing—he’s trying to publicize the animals’ plight.
Although Richardson’s ruggedness suggests he was born in the bush, he hails from the lower-middle-class Johannesburg suburb of Orange Grove, where citrus orchards long ago gave way to homes with postage-stamp–size lawns. When Richardson was three or four, his dad helped him rear a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. Dazzled by the experience, Richardson began to nurse other birds, until, by the age of seven, he’d acquired his first moniker: the Bird Boy of Orange Grove. Weavers, pigeons, mourning doves—broken birds by the dozen were brought by neighbors to the family’s home.
When Richardson was in his early teens, his father died. He acted out, drank heavily, stole cars, and even rolled his sister’s vehicle in a crash. He lost interest in his birds and one day set the flock free. While he had once hoped to study veterinary science, he was lucky to make it into university at all and even luckier to escape with two years of zoology and a bachelor’s degree in physiology and anatomy. He eventually landed a job at a Johannesburg facility called Lion Park, where he fell in love with two lion cubs named Tau and Napoleon.
He can’t really explain why, on his first visit, he stepped inside their pen. Youthful machismo may have played a part—this was a guy who had ridden superbikes and flown planes. Richardson suspects his ongoing grief for his father was also a factor; he was trying to master his fear of death. Regardless, the impulse was foolhardy. “At six months, a lion cub is big,” he explains. “Check out his claws, his teeth—the thing can make a mess of you.”
No sane, unarmed wrangler will stay in an enclosure with a lion older than six months. Richardson ignored that policy and spent as much time with the brood as possible, bonding as the lions grew into ornery adolescents and strapping adults. He discovered, as everyone else at the park soon did, that he had a sixth sense about them. He could ask them to stroll alongside him, to roll on their backs to accept a tummy rub. He used no coercion—no sticks, no pepper spray. Lions, he learned, are hugely social, and if he was welcomed into the pride, he wasn’t just safe—he was loved.
And so a brand was born. At 22, Richardson became a star wrangler at Lion Park, a glorified zoo for guests eager to taste the bush in a contained setting. But he realized that by emphasizing Tau and Napoleon’s cuteness, he was contributing to a trend that meant more cubs doing “cub duty” in competing parks and later being killed in canned hunts. “You could say I was part of the problem,” says Richardson.
If he was to do right by the animals he loved, he needed to both stoke his celebrity and eliminate the need for it to exist. He began thinking about acquiring a facility large enough to let his captive lions roam free.
Today, Richardson pilots a four-by-four through the dirt tracks of Welgedacht Game Reserve, about 30 miles north of the South African capital of Pretoria. A year ago, with the help of donors, the Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary was established on a privately owned plot comprising almost 3,000 acres of rolling grassland. Thirteen electrified enclosures, each about two acres in size, shelter 26 lions, most 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. He has known the sisters for 11 years. After he left Lion Park, he was scared they were headed to a hunting shop, so he purchased them.
He has also redoubled his efforts to curtail the canned hunt by joining conservation groups in lobbying the South African government, raising awareness through fund-raising and social media, leading seminars, and working with wildlife NGOs.
The last thing he 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; he supports a nationwide moratorium on breeding. 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 to pet a cub, knowing that, as an adult, he’s going to get slaughtered?”
A week or so before Christmas, 2013, during one of the violent storms that announce the arrival of South Africa’s rainy season, a lion called Thor was felled by a lightning strike. A white lion in Richardson’s sanctuary, Thor was named for the Norse god of war and thunder. The lion had starred in many videos and documentaries, most notably the 2010 epic White Lion, which turned him into a matinee idol. The circumstances of his death seemed like a resounding tribute from above.
Richardson’s relationship with Thor was not without its troubles. On a film set five years ago, feeling the pressure of all that money spooling through the camera, Richardson prompted Thor to attack an animatronic lion one time too many. With staggering speed, the 660-pound animal lunged and grabbed Richardson’s forearm in his jaws, employing just enough pressure to make his intentions plain.
In the only way he was able, Thor informed Richardson that the line between friendship and exploitation had been crossed. Richardson was ashamed. It took three years for Thor to forgive him and invite the Lion Whisperer back into his social circle with a guttural grumble.
“When he died, I don’t think I’ve ever cried more,” Richardson says. The essential aspects of Thor’s character—his solitariness, his independence, and his pride—underlie Richardson’s desire to run Welgedacht as a game park without a captive lion population once his own brood dies off. “I want no lions in enclosures,” he says. “If that happens, then I know we’re doing something right.”