Kevin Richardson, the Lion Whisperer, with one of his male lions in South Africa. The zoologist has hand-reared 27 lions and is considered a member of the pack.
A SOUTH AFRICAN biologist has pulled off the ultimate house move, transporting 27 adult lions in a Mercedes Sprinter van from one wildlife reserve to another.
Surprisingly, a few months after their arrival in the park north of Pretoria, all lions are peacefully established, with just the family dog suffering from migration shock.
Kevin Richardson, a biologist known as “The Lion Whisperer,” has pioneered a new manner of communicating with Africa’s apex predator that defies belief.
The Lion Whisperer: Kevin Richardson says he is accepted as a part-time member of the pride. Photo: lionwhisperer.co.za
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He is recognized as a part-time member of the pride after hand-rearing his lions, and he rolls around with them, getting licked and nuzzled as if he were one of the pack.
In 15 years of dealing with lions, he has sustained only minor injuries, locking lips, putting his hand in their jaws, and even sleeping with his deadly huge animals without damage. How does he manage it?
“Despite popular belief, lions are not mindless man eaters,” Richardson explains as he sits in the shade at his Dinokeng game reserve north of Pretoria.
“If you respect them, they’re actually incredibly accepting of individuals. Over the past fifteen and a half years, I’ve built incredibly deep connections with my lions that are founded on mutual respect.”
Kevin Richardson, the Lion Whisperer, with one of his lions in South Africa. The biologist has raised 27 lions by hand and is considered a member of the pack. Photographer: lionwhisperer.co.za
Richardson, 38, who is married with a tiny child and another on the way, breaches every animal safety guideline in the book, redefining how lions are best managed.
Rather than using whips and beatings to break the spirits of the animals, the zoologist forms personal ties with each one.
He claims to be well acquainted with his lions, understanding what makes them happy and unhappy and, as a result, knowing when to give them a wide berth if they’re having a terrible hair day.
Richardson believes the “treat them nasty” school of controlling lions didn’t hold water after being inspired by George and Joy Adamson, Kenyan game wardens who fostered a lion cub named Elsa in the 1950s.
“I realized that all lions can express affection.”
“Like human parenting, the greatest time to establish a link is while they are young. I met Tau and Napoleon when they were six months old, and we have become quite close.”
“They’re already old men, sixteen in June. In the wild, they’d be dead by now, battle-scarred and pushed out by younger males, doomed to roam the plains alone.”
“It all resolves around respect, a lot of people can abuse a lion when it’s a cub, but as it gets to two or three it gives a bit back, and a lot of people go by the wayside.
“A lion is not a possession; it is a sentient being, and like with any relationship, you must pay attention and cultivate your link.”
Over the course of 15 years, I’ve learnt how lions develop together, and they now truly embrace me.”
But isn’t he scared?
“Fear has nothing to do with it,” Richardson argues.
“It goes against most people’s beliefs that lions are killing machines.” Do you ever worry about your dog attacking you? It never crosses your mind, therefore you’re at ease. If you came in afraid, your dog would notice. You guys feed off each other, excuse the pun!”
Is he ever concerned that his lions would turn against him? Richardson, reflecting on the fate of Californian Timothy Treadwell, who was devoured by grizzly bears in Alaska after spending several summers with them, thinks anyone attempting to interact with truly wild creatures is insane.
“Treadwell was looking for something in people that he couldn’t find and began to believe he was a bear.”
As for Siegfried (the Las Vegas entertainer who was mauled by a tiger), their animals had to perform in front of a huge audience every night.”
“How would you feel if you had to do that every day?”
“Eventually, a tiger will have a terrible day; all you have to do is recognize when an animal is upset and leave it alone.”
Growing up in the woods, Richardson kept crickets beneath his bed and had a pet toad.
For his passion of South Africa’s various birds, he was called “The Bird Man of Orange Grove” as a youth.
He began his work in physiotherapy after studying zoology at university.
He happened to be treating businessman Rodney Fuhr, who owned a lion park outside Johannesburg and persuaded Richardson to care for two six-month-old cubs Tau and Napoleon. As a result, the love affair began.