Kevin Richardson Foundation Interview
Written by Christiana Ioannou on October 31, 2019
-You are the owner of the Kevin Richardson Foundation and Sanctuary! Could you please give us more information about it and about its purpose?
The Kevin Richardson Foundation was launched in early 2018 in response to the now critical situation facing both wild and captive lions. There are currently less than 20,000 wild lions left in the world. Scientists predict that by 2050 there will likely be no lions left in the wild. Adding to this disturbing situation is the fact that lion numbers in captivity are steadily increasing. There are an estimated 10,000 captive lions in South Africa which are farmed for commercial purposes in conditions similar to that of cattle farming. These lions are exploited for financial gain their entire lives and their lives end with a hunter’s bullet. It is clear that a radical shift in mentality is needed to put the lion back in its rightful place in the animal kingdom.
-What made you start the Foundation and the Sanctuary? Could you tell us your story and how your story lead you to start the organization?
I never intended to be the Lion Whisperer, run a wildlife sanctuary and never dreamt I would have my own conservation foundation. I will have to make a very long story short, as you will see by the fact that I wrote a book called “Part of the Pride” telling the story of how I came to be here today. But essentially, I had loved animals from a young age rescuing them and all my neighbours would bring wounded animals to me to care for. I soon became known locally as ‘The Bird Man of Orange Grove’ and began to take in many more waifs and strays.
After school I planned to follow a career with animals and tried to get into veterinary science, which is very difficult and exclusive in South Africa. So I shifted my focus to zoology and completed my BSc (Bachelor orf Science) majoring in anatomy and physiology.
In 1998 I was a young man working in a gym where I trained a businessman who owned a touristic wildlife park. He offered me a job helping look after the animals. Here I was given the chance to work with two lion cubs, “Tau” and “Napoleon”. Working with these cubs honed my ability to work with lions in a hands-on, interactive manner – challenging many misconception – and I was soon dubbed ‘The Lion Whisperer”. Whilst other trainers used force and fear to train, I never wanted any sticks or prodders but rather just to get down on the level of the lion, and show it respect.
After some time working at the lion park, which allowed cub-petting for tourists, I began to understand the pitfalls of this industry. I never felt comfortable with the answers I was been given as to what ultimately happened to the lion cubs once they grew up. Like many of these parks in South Africa, once cubs grow too big to pet, most potentially end up supplying the controversial ‘canned lion hunting’ industry.
In 2011 I severed all ties with the lion park and after a painstaking fight moved all the lions I knew to a sanctuary in the Dinokeng game reserve. Here we institute a no-breeding policy and capitalize on the audience built through Lion Whisperer TV to teach the world about lions and the dire challenges they are currently facing.
-How did you get your nickname “The Lion Whisperer”? Talk to us about the unique relationship that you have formed with the lions through the years!
As mentioned people just started calling me the “Lion Whisperer”. At first I resisted the name, I don’t really whisper to lions at all, I communicate with the lions in my care on multiple levels but mostly through the relationship we have built over years. I have known them from when they were cubs. There are misconceptions about a lot of predator animals like lions and hyena that they are man-eating dangerous beasts. In truth each animal has a personality, with good days and bad days, tempers and quirks. I show the animals in my care the same respect, patience and love that I show to people in my life and that is how I have come to engage with them as I do.
-When was your first encounter with a lion? How did you feel? Please, talk to us about these majestic creatures and why they are heading slowly to extinction!
My first encounter with an adult lion was an experience that was a combination of fear, and awe. The sheer magnitude of a lion’s power of presence is overwhelming. The majesty of lions has always stayed with me, and I still feel in awe of their presence. For this reason it is difficult to understand how humans can put them in cages, remove their claws, hunt them, consume them and do all the other terrible things the do, motivated by greed and power.
The reasons lions are heading to extinction is not a single line answer. But if you go to our website we have a very clear explanation of how this has happened. https://kevinrichardsonfoundation.org/status-of-lions/
-Could you please explain to our audience and to the public that is conflicted, how are you helping the lions and other carnivores in care with the sanctuary?
In truth I am not “helping” the animals in our sanctuary to in any way return to the life that was intended for them. When raised in captivity, lions cannot be released into the wild, and even if they could there is not enough wildlife habitat left in South Africa to accommodate them. I am simply giving them the best quality of life they can get considering their circumstances, and hopefully maintain this quality of life for them until their last day. The animals do however serve us in so many ways. Because I get up close and personal with the lions, millions of people around the earth have been able to see and learn details about lions that are not commonly known. There is an old saying by Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” I understand my interactions are not in line with everyone’s opinions, and to be honest I understand that, there are so many irresponsible people out there and with the advent of social media many of them have a platform to spread incorrect messages. However, over the past decade I have come to see the intelligence and responsibility of so many of our followers who now know more about lions, and what is really going on, than most Africans. Understanding creates love, loving something helps mobilize you to move, and mass movement towards change is what we need today when we have so little time left and the old ways aren’t working anymore.
-In 2018 you raised more than 2.7 million in your #LandforLions campaign. Did you expect that kind of support from people?
We were overwhelmed with the response, grateful for the response, but surprised? I must say I wasn’t entirely surprised, my team definitely was, but I k now how much my audience is invested in the wellbeing of the liosn in my care. it’s been ten years now of talking to my followers and when someone in Finland can recognize by name over 20 different lions, you know that they are committed to the cause.
-You have said in the past that your biggest fear is who is going to take care of your lions when you are gone! Why are you afraid of that?
It is quite simple; the lions are sensitive and look to me as a caregiver and family member. They are also expensive to look after and without the funds generated from Lion Whisperer TV, I don’t know who would be willing to take on the expense of dozens of aging lions. I also always notice it is when I go away that some lion or another gets sick. It’s funny, many people say I must stop interacting with my lions and deep down I know if I did stop, it would be very sad to see what happens to their emotional and physical wellbeing.
-Scientists predict that by 2050 there will be no wild lions left in the wild. Could you tell us the damage that this will cause to the ecosystem, if we can evade that and possible ways to prevent it?
Whenever an eco system loses its apex predator it has a ripple down effect on the other populations of species and even the landscape. Look what happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park, look at what will happen to our oceans if we lose our sharks and our big fish like tuna. Not enough people talk about what will happen if we lose our lions, besides losing such an important ancient mythical animal, but we should. We can only evade this problem by ensuring at the very list, existing lion territory is protected. Habitat loss is key to the lion’s survival, as well as working on the ground with communities that live on the fringes of wildlife habitat to prevent loss of human and animal life. The problem needs to be tackled holistically and you can read more about that on our website.
-What are your future plans, for yourself and for the Foundation? What other goals you want to achieve?
How long do you have? I could talk all day about what we want to do! In a nutshell we want to reach as many people as possible so that whatever happens to lions, the world has its eyes wide open. We want to inspire and empower anyone, no matter their position or what they own, to be able to help positively benefit lions in Africa. We want tourists to be equipped with knowledge that helps them make responsible decisions, instead of adding to the problem. We want to reclaim habitat and return it to mother nature, because nature will do the rest if we give it the space to thrive. We want to see local communities’ benefit from the act of protecting the animals that live around them, instead of fearing them. And mostly we hope to see everyone come together and put their differences aside to tackle this problem because we do not have any time to waste being divided.
-Please, inform our readers how could they contribute and help the Sanctuary? Thank you once again for accepting our invitation!!
Thank you for the opportunity!
There are several ways for your audience to support the work we do
- Sign up to our newsletter to keep in touch with what we are doing https://kevinrichardsonfoundation.org/join-community/
- make a small monthly donation via our #onecupforacause campaign https://kevinrichardsonfoundation.org/onecupforacause/
- Share information about the status of lions with your friends. https://kevinrichardsonfoundation.org/status-of-lions/
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/KevinRichardsonFoundation/
Instagram Page: https://www.instagram.com/kevinrichardsonfoundation/?hl=en
Do not forget to watch the amazing movie which talks about the lions and the sanctuary, “Mia and the White lion”