Meet Kevin Richardson, The Alleged 'Lion Whisperer' - What Do You Think Of His Practices?

Meet Kevin Richardson, The Alleged 'Lion Whisperer' - What Do You Think Of His Practices?

Posted by Ellie Hutchin on Nov 20, 2017

The lion is renowned for being The King of his domain, majestic and magnificent as they prowl across African landscapes. As an apex predator, and thus a key component of the ecosystem, the lion once spent its days roaming across the bush, hunting prey and socialising with pride members. Today, however, a wild lion’s daily endeavours are not so simple. Each day is a fight for survival for these fascinating felines, due to mass habitat loss, poaching, the wildlife trade, and more.

African Lion

As some of you may already know, the populations of the African lion have dwindled drastically over the last 50 years. In the 1960s, populations were at around 200,000 but it is now estimated that less than 20,000 lions are roaming the plains of Africa today. WWF has classified the species as vulnerable, and the rate of their decline is on the rise.

Fortunately, there are passionate conservationists and zoologists out there who are dedicated to lion conservation. They spend their lives contributing to the preservation of the species, encouraging and imploring others along the way to join the cause. One person who claims to be an advocate for lion conservation is the world-renowned Kevin Richardson, otherwise known as ‘The Lion Whisperer’.

Who Is Kevin Richardson?

Photo credit: Kevin Richardson's Instagram @lionwhisperersa

Richardson is famous for the unique relationships he has formed with the lions which reside at his sanctuary in South Africa. As seen in the video below, Richardson has been branded ‘The Lion Whisperer’ due to his ability to interact on a peculiar level with lions. In his videos you will watch a beast, weighing on average around 420 lbs, bounding toward Richardson, only to embrace him in what seems to be an almighty lion hug, wrapping huge paws around his neck, and licking his face.

Kevin claims to have been accepted as a member of his captive prides through education of lion behaviour, and an understanding of the animals on both a physical and emotional level, and does not fear for his safety around the lions. You will even see him cooing at the animals, and as one has a playful tumble, Kevin laughs, “oh my girl!”, and as he is approached by a huge male, he greets him softly with, “hello my boy.”

Using the fame he has acquired through his relationship with lions as a platform, Richardson claims he strives to shed light on the beauty and majesty of these animals and why it is so important that they are preserved. But is he doing the right thing?

Kevin Richardson’s relationship with lions is a controversial topic that has sparked much debate. Conservation is an extremely complex thing, surrounded by even more complex factors, (which will be discussed further along in this piece) but a global issue nonetheless. Therefore, The Great Projects want to know your opinion regarding the work of Kevin Richardson, and whether you agree or disagree with his practises.

However, we thought we would supply you with a breakdown of the debate so far to help you form an opinion…

Where Did It All Begin?

Photo credit: Kevin Richardson's Instagram @lionwhisperersa

Richardson’s story begins as a young man who began working with lions in captivity in South Africa. It was known to be an institution where people could come and play with lion cubs, and before the cubs reached an age of around 20 months, people could participate in walks with them. Here, Richardson began to develop his unique bond with 2 lion cubs (as well as hyenas and other carnivores) but quickly discovered the negative impact the industry can have on the animals.

Kevin explains in many of his videos and interviews with journalists what really happens to the lions after they have fulfilled the insatiable demand for hugs and walks. He explains, at the time, this kind of industry offered huge financial gain but with little education or consideration regarding animal welfare. When the animals exceeded the age of 20 months, they were deemed too dangerous to interact with humans, and Richardson realised their fate from that point onwards was far more sinister than members of the public who supported this industry could ever imagine.

Some lions would be donated to surrounding zoos or other facilities where they could live out the rest of their days, but not necessarily in conditions that were suitable to provide a captive big cat with a stimulating and happy life. But what’s more, all too often they would be sold into what is branded ‘The Canned Hunting Industry’, where they would eventually be hunted as a trophy for a large fee.

A Sinister Industry - Destined For The Bullet

Trophy Hunting Lions

Photo credit: Rex Shutterstock. Walter Palmer, safari trophy hunting.

Canned hunting is an escalating yet legal trade in South Africa. According to earthisland.org, in 2012, canned hunting generated a profit that was equal to around $70 million. Some people may wonder what the difference between trophy hunting and canned hunting is: canned hunters pay to kill captive lions in enclosures, and trophy hunters employ a ‘fair chase’ mentality and will hunt wild lions.

Fiona Miles, the director of LIONSROCK, (a sanctuary in Bethlehem that cares for lions that have come from private captivity, circuses and zoos with inadequate living conditions) spoke to Africa Geographic about the reality of the journey of lion cubs to the sanctuaries where they then spend their first years interacting with humans. She says:

“the majority of cubs encountered at facilities where interaction is provided are the product of intensive captive breeding or farming. These cubs are removed from their mother as young as possible and hand raised.”


She explains that the reason this is done is because the cubs raise a great deal of funds through interaction as we already know, but also because the lioness can then go into season sooner (therefore quickly having more cubs to supply to the industry) than if she had to spend time raising her young.

Something that Richardson learned during his time at the lion park, was that there was an undeniable chain between cub-petting and the canned hunting industry: once the cubs were too unpredictable to be petted or walked with, and in turn ‘not profitable’, they were, as Richardson claims, ‘destined for the bullet’. In 2013, he became an advocate for the Campaign Against Canned Lion Hunting (CACLH), in an attempt to preserve lion populations that are still rapidly decreasing.

His work contributes directly to the Protecting African Wildlife Conservation Trust which actively funds the conservation of lions and leopards.

Kevin’s Campaign For Carnivores

Over the years, Kevin built relationships with many lions in his care and, in 2011, moved them to a new facility, cutting all ties with the park he previously worked in. The lions new home was to be in the Southeast boundary of the Welgedacht Game Reserve, within the borders of the Dinokeng Big 5 reserve in Pretoria, South Africa.

Nowadays, what started with Kevin moving captive lions and other carnivores to a new home, is now ‘The Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary’, comprised of 1200 hectares, with carnivorous residents including not only lion, but both spotted and striped hyena and black leopard. The sanctuary has a mission of providing ‘a self-sustaining African carnivore sanctuary for the purpose of wild species preservation.’

As part of the fight against canned hunting and the cub petting industry, Kevin implements a no breeding policy. Additionally, the sanctuary does not have available space for the animals in his care to breed. Therefore, he fits the lions with a contraceptive implant. You can check out the video below to understand more about this and why it is done for many lionesses in South Africa.

The sanctuary contains 13 predator enclosures with a large central enrichment area. The animals in the enclosures are unable to be completely wild as their home is situated within a national park with other lions roaming freely. As territorial animals, if one pride of lions came across another, there would be a fight to the death.

Instead, Richardson tracks the location of the wild lions, and takes those who reside in the enclosures for enrichment walks in areas where they will not come into conflict. Richardson claims that this activity helps to keep their innate wild instincts stimulated, such as their senses of smell and taste.

You can see many videos on Kevin’s YouTube channel where the lions are engaging in wild behaviour during these walks, as they stalk potential prey and socialise with members of their groups, including Kevin. In the video below, Kevin takes captive lions, Vayetsi, Livy and Ginny, for an enrichment walk, where they can be seen interacting with both Kevin and their surroundings.

Video from Richardsons Youtube Channel.

Why Is It Not As Simple As We May Think?

While many have argued that Kevin’s practices with the lions that reside in his wildlife sanctuary cannot be classed as conservation, he is a self-proclaimed conservationist and Zoologist who declares to operate with the aim of spreading awareness of the plight of wild lions, and those in captivity.

Some, such as online blog Icarus Inc. feel that Kevin’s method of looking after captive lions cannot be classed as true conservation as “there is no benefit in this for the greater good of the species.” The blog began as a research thesis regarding global conservation issues, and has blossomed into an online presence that aims to ‘merge the conservation world with the rest of the population’.

Photo credit: Kevin Richardson's Instagram @lionwhisperers


The argument whether Kevin’s work can be classed as conservation or not, can only be resolved by specifically defining conservation; but how do you reach a definitive conclusion about conservation when there are so many overlapping areas in which the concept branches off into?

Nevertheless, Richardson has millions of views on YouTube, has featured in all manner of news programs and documentaries, and has even broken records for viewer ratings. He has also written a book called ‘Part Of The Pride’, throughout all of which he seemingly tries to share his knowledge around lion conservation and spread awareness to the world.

The evidence provides no reason to doubt that his intentions are good, but are his practices beneficial, or detrimental to the lions in his care?

Exploitation And Humanisation

Online users, such as Icarus Inc and its subscribers, believe that Kevin’s interaction with the lions is exploitation. We have written blogs about how detrimental hands-on contact is with animals; it can completely collapse their wild foundations, causing them to become unfit for independent life in the wild. This is why many of our projects do not permit such contact, especially when they plan to release animals back into their natural habitat.

However, the CACLH support Richardson’s practices, and feel they are completely ethical because “he rescues these lions, and it is their choice whether they want to interact with him or not”. Additionally, the lions at The Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary will never be able to return to the wild as they have been in captivity since they were cubs or have been rescued from the wildlife trade, and would never survive without sanctuary care as a result.

Therefore, could it be suggested that the lions are that humanised, that they depend on human interaction to have a stimulated life?

There’s No ‘But’ In Conservation

The Icarus Group claim that “the word ‘but’ in regard to conservation is a dangerous, and insidious thing”. They expressed their opinions with regards to Richardson’s practices in a blog post earlier this year;

“aside from issuing medical attention or for purposes of rehabilitation, there is no benefit for the animal in having humans handle or touch it.”

They go on to claim that “it’s exploitative” to continue those practices outside of these purposes and “label it as conservation.” They explain further with an analogy relating to domestic abuse in humans: “when you are dealing with a public looking to you for examples of how to protect wild animals, you must make yourself an ideal example. A child who witnesses domestic violence, even if as a child they are told that hitting people is wrong, is at a much higher risk to subsequently abuse their domestic partner.”

The analogy suggests that, despite easily accessible knowledge regarding vulnerable species and the struggles they face, easily influenced people (such as children) could still replicate these actions. If they see someone who claims to be a public figure within conservation acting in a way that the industry to which he belongs categorically says not to, there is the potential for lines to be blurred. This then results in the continuation of human’s actions having a detrimental effect on the lion species for generations to come.

Photo credit: Kevin Richardson's Instagram @lionwhisperersa

But are Richardson’s practices exploitative? As previously mentioned, The CACLH claim the animals "choose" to interact with him, and Kevin appears to back this up in another YouTube video when seemingly play fighting with a lioness (“you can see her claws are not out. She is playing and talking.”)

But are the animals choosing to interact, or have they been domesticated into doing so? Do they enjoy the interaction with Kevin, and do they really mean him no harm? There are many questions to answer here…

Man And Beast Become One – Right Or Wrong?

Icarus go on to say that The Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary is not GFAS (Global Federation of Animal Welfare) certified. The Global Federation of Animal Welfare has “established standards of care and operation for 25 different groups of animals”, and these guidelines are used to “evaluate sanctuaries, rescue centres, and rehabilitation centres in a thorough and rigorous manner”. They assert that organisations who comply with these standards are “recognised with accreditation or verification status and the public can be reassured that they provide humane and responsible care for their animals in a non-exploitative environment”.

Due the hands-on interaction between Kevin and the lions, the sanctuary will never be able to achieve GFAS verification, but does that mean he is having a detrimental effect on the animals under his care?

Photo credit: Kevin Richardson's Instagram @lionwhisperersa

Members of the public who have expressed their views on social media (by leaving comments on Richardson's various social platforms) have gone as far as to make claims that Kevin Richardson really does exploit his animals: as his YouTube videos are edited, only scenes of animals appearing to be happy and playful are included and shared to his millions of worldwide followers.

Aside from social media debates, and online trolls, it is extremely difficult to find conservation authorities having this conversation, and therefore it is equally difficult to draw a conclusion on the matter. Some feel that hands-on contact should never occur between man and beast, with one Facebook user commenting below one of Kevin’s posts:

“when a wild animal (even tame ones) are in a situation where they are interacting with man, something went wrong.”

Photo credit: Kevin Richardson's Instagram @lionwhisperersa

Followers of Richardson then jumped to his defence, claiming that he can be classified as a conservationist as he campaigns against the canned hunting and the cub petting industry (the official site for The Campaign Against Canned Hunting specifically refers to Kevin and his contributions to the cause.)

His fans argue that the lions in his care cannot survive in the wild, but it is only Kevin with whom they interact with in this way, and therefore should not be considered to be ‘tame’, so are they, therefore, truly humanised or domesticated?

Kevin explains in many of his videos that he can have this contact with the lions because he has raised them since they were cubs, and he has managed to construct this unique relationship without beating or chaining them, or causing them distress in any way. Encounters and walks with the lions that Richardson has filmed and shared to his YouTube channel frequently see him warning guests to stay back and stay vigilant around the animals whilst in the safari truck, and they stay safely behind the enclosure barriers whilst Kevin goes in.

Comments are ever changing, and people’s opinions are being expressed on his social media sites every single day. If you would like to review then you can see for yourself on his Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Ethical And Medicinal Controversy

Photo credit: Kevin Richardson's Instagram @lionwhisperersa

Africa Geographic help to shed light on some medical reasons why hands-on contact with animals should never occur too. As Fiona Miles continues her interview with them, she explains that “interaction with wild animals serves no positive influence on the animals. Animals that are utilised for human interaction will invariably become habituated and lose any fear of humans.”

She also goes on to say that habituation increases the risk to both animal and human along with a rise in the risk of transferring disease. Africa Geographic say: “ethically any interaction between a human and an animal ultimately lowers the welfare of the animal.” More questions arise with this, such as, surely animals in sanctuary care will be at less of a risk of catching disease as there are medical professionals present? What about the animals that come into the sanctuaries and are already habituated? They depend on human care to survive, so where do we draw the line?

What It all Boils Down To – What Do You Think?

At this stage in the debate, the complexities stigmatised with conservation come to light, because there does not seem to be a simple, straightforward solution.

Many conservationists - whether they dedicate their lives to it, or, like many of us, who dedicate fragments of time and money to wildlife organisations- have claimed that lion conservation is not just collectively about preserving or breeding lions for species continuation. The sad fact is, there simply is not as much natural habitat for lions to roam in as there once was.

This could suggest that conserving lions by breeding them could add more to the problem rather than aiding it, as too many lions with too little range could lead to unbalanced prey-to-predator ratios, and of course more conflict with humans.

Habitat loss, trophy hunting and other factors have meant that along with the decline in lion populations, the abundance of prey available to them and a depletion in roaming ranges, more and more pressure is being placed on lion populations. Consequently, some feel that the focus of lion conservation should be centred around prohibiting trophy hunting, cub petting and further destruction of lion habitat, but what is the best way to care for the lions in captivity in the meantime? If space in the wild is not freely available or self-sustaining, how can we guarantee captive conditions are sufficient for these big cats?

Humans are accountable for domesticating some lions, knowingly and unknowingly, but are the lions in Kevin’s care truly humanised if it is just Kevin they’re interacting with? Is Kevin wrong for continuing these interactions? The questions continue…

But do you think you may have an answer? Let us know if you are for or against Kevin Richardson’s methods in the poll below.

When asked by a Sky news producer if he was interfering with nature by having this unusual relationship with lions, Richardson responds:

“I think we interfered with nature the day we put these animals in enclosures.”

But what do you think?


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Antsa commented 1 month ago
My issue with Kevin is that yes, he may have a bond with his animals but the funeral public will see him doing this and want to replicate this. Although he preaches against doing what he is doing, in a trip to S.A. earlier this year, there is a billboard on the exit from Kruger at the Phalaborwa gate for Tzaneen predator park, where you can do exactly as he does. So you can go to the park and play with adult lions in the same manner as Kevin. You can't condemn one thing while doing that thing...

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