Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 30th 2017 Contents life A23
Tuesday, May 30, 2017 guardian.co.tt
gets up close
with big cats
The male lion brushes through the
tall grass and strides into a clearing
in a South African wildlife sanctu-
ary. A man beckons the big cat with
purring sounds. The lion, Bayetsi,
responds with a gentle growl and
caresses Kevin Richardson, popu-
larly known as the "lion whisperer,"
with its mane.
Richardson hopes his hands-on
stunts with lions will highlight the
plight of the African predator, whose
numbers have dwindled. It also thrusts
him into a sensitive debate about hu-
man interaction with lions, some con-
servationists say Richardson's message
is sound and sincere, but note the limits
of what he can do to address big-picture
problems facing the vulnerable species.
The number of lions in the wild in
Africa has dropped by more than 40 per
cent to about 20,000 in the past two
decades, according to some estimates.
Made for viral viewing on social me-
dia, the spectacle of Richardson loung-
ing and cavorting with lions as though
they were house pets might resemble a
circus act in the African bush. But he
uses the attention to condemn the South
African industry in which customers kill
captive-bred lions in relatively confined
He and other critics describe that
practice as "canned hunting" and also
condemn the tourist draw of lion cub
petting in special enclosures, saying
those same animals would not be able
to survive in the wild and often get cy-
cled into the "trophy" industry to be
shot for a price.
"Today's lion cub becomes tomor-
row's trophy and the unsuspecting
tourists have blood on their hands,"
said Richardson, who once worked at
a tourist park that offered lion cub-pet-
ting. The tourists, he said, "have been
hoodwinked into believing that their
contribution of funds is going into lion
One South African operation, the
Lion and Safari Park, said it stopped
lion cub petting but had to resume it
because of a "dramatic and unexpect-
ed" drop in visitors and tour operators
who sought out cub petting elsewhere.
It said it keeps its lions until they die
of natural causes or donates them to
"reputable" zoos and parks, and does
not sell its lions to hunters.
Today, 42-year-old Richardson,
who is married and has two children,
manages a wildlife area with 31 lions
within the Dinokeng reserve north of
South Africa's capital, Pretoria. Many
of the lions, which were captive-bred
and cannot be released into the wild,
were rescued from being transferred
to operations that would let customers
shoot them, he said.
Richardson said he does not breed li-
ons and that those on his 1,300-hectare
(3,200-acre) property feed on donated
carcasses of cattle and antelope.
"I have been accepted as part of the
pride," said Richardson, scratching the
lion Bayetsi's chin. "But I have to be very
careful. They are large animals and are
very good at telling you how they feel."
The lions have scratched and bitten
Richardson over the years, but perhaps
more hurtful to him has been the crit-
icism he has faced after being filmed
wrestling with his lions or roaring with
Richardson's website, which offers
merchandise including T-shirts, key
chains and calendars, says he seeks to
promote wildlife preservation through
"education, awareness and funding."
Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, a
conservation group, commended Rich-
ardson for his passion and "authentic"
concern for lions, saying: "His messag-
ing, for what he has and what he can
do, is good."
But Hunter emphasised the broad-
er conservation needs of the lion, in-
cluding efforts to protect habitats and
address poaching, in which antelopes
and other potential prey for lions end
up in the bushmeat trade, and lions get
trapped in snares laid down indiscrim-
A relatively recent concern is demand
in some Asian countries for lion bones
used in traditional medicine, and the
possibility that poachers are increas-
ingly targeting lions to meet that de-
mand. Currently, South Africa allows
the legal, annual export of bones from
hundreds of captive-bred lions to China
and Southeast Asia.
Richardson spoke of his intimacy with
"The relationships I have with them
are purely to give them a better quality
of life in a captive situation," he said. "I
will look after them as long as I can."
Richardson seeks to raise awareness about the plight of Africa's lions, whose numbers in the wild have
dwindled in past decades. AP PHOTO
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