Ever dreamed of being best friends with a lion? Welcome to the life of Kevin Richardson AKA the ‘Lion Whisperer’.
I recently got in touch with Kevin to see if he'd be keen to help me raise awareness of the canned hunting industry. With some controversy online about Kevin's work and certain groups doubting his efforts in conservation, I was eager to get to know the man behind the stories. Kevin gave me nearly 2 hours of his time, and is one of the most genuine, respectful, and interesting people I've met in conservation. A top bloke who's undeniably doing fantastic things for wildlife conservation. In fact, we chatted for so long that I've had to break the interview into 4 parts, where we spoke in depth about his journey (Ep. 1), the canned hunting industry (Ep. 2), the conservation of lions and wildlife (Ep. 3), and the vilification of hyenas (Ep. 4). Enjoy and get to know the man behind the mane!
Josh: "Who is Kevin Richardson and how did you become the 'Lion Whisperer?’"
Kevin: "Sure, long story. About 22 years ago I got the opportunity to visit a lion park that wasn’t too far away from where I lived. As an animal lover from a young age, I thought this was a great opportunity to go check out. I met 2 great lion cubs by the names of Tau and Napoleon … and the rest is history! With them I was completely smitten and completely in awe of them, as most people who see lions are. I got hugely involved and it kind of changed my whole life.
The 'Lion Whisperer' title really came about many years afterwards, after I’d started a relationship and it was basically a title bestowed upon me by UK press. The more I tried to shrug it off and tell people I’m not that guy, the more it stuck. Ultimately my brother-in-law at one point in time said to me 'why are you rejecting that name? Why not just embrace it? It distinguishes you from other people' … and here we are."
Josh: “So, you didn’t want to nickname?!”
Kevin: “No actually I don’t like it even to this day. It’s never been something that I’ve felt comfortable with and I don’t like titles… I’m just Kevin Richardson.”
Josh: “You’ve got a really special relationship with the animals you work with. It would be great for our audience to know how you formed your unique relationship with lions & what they mean to you?”
“I think everything we do in life is about relationships. It’s either relationships with people or relationships with animals, and as a boy growing up I always wanted to see another side of the animals that I was interacting with - I never took it at face value. Whether it was a frog, a mouse, or a bird, I’d want to know what that was about. So, when it got to lions it was, so I’ve heard what lions are meant to be like but I wanted to see for myself. The more I started to work with Tau and Napoleon, the more I started to realise that what I heard wasn’t adding up. As they got bigger and bigger, I heard you can’t do this and mustn’t do that – but I thought to myself, this doesn’t make any sense! Because, if you truly have a relationship with them, as many people claim to do, then it shouldn’t affect the way you treat them and what you do with them. Whether they’re 2 years of age or older…
What I’m saying is, the relationships are complicated on another level and I didn’t go about my career or my life trying to prove people wrong about lions and their behaviour, it was merely that I saw a different side to these lions, and I saw that I could interact with them and form these bonds and relationships. One thing led to another until I was working with these big adult lions and we still had this good relationship.”
Josh: “I’m a huge fan of your Instagram @lionwhisperersa, and it’s incredible to see how close you’ve become with these animals”
Kevin: “That’s the key Josh, my thinking has evolved. You know it’s been 22 years, and the things I did back when I was 23 years of age, I certainly wouldn’t be doing now at 45. This is how we all learn and I think that’s the important point, but a lot of the people who do know me and understand my work, they do get that my work is based on very long relationships”
Josh: "Do you have a favourite moment from working with Lions?"
Kevin: "Yeah, look. Every day working with them is standout, so what you have to do on a daily basis is say to yourself - 'you’re very privileged and very lucky to be doing what you’re doing and you should never, ever take it for granted' … I think that is the truth. You know, so many times I see humans want something really badly and when they get it they think I’ve kind of conquered that, and then move onto the next thing. But these animals are not there for you to conquer. You form bonds and relationships with them and then you have a duty to protect them and to look after them.
I never quite understood or realised what I was getting involved with at that young age. At my age now at 45 if I had to go down that same road again… would I do this all over again? The answer might be no. But not based on the relationships that are formed over the years, it’s just the complexities of wildlife and conservation. Anything we do these days as human beings is really complicated, and I think it requires a lot more thought than one sometimes does at 23 years of age."
Josh: “You mentioned some people who didn’t want to work with you and I’ve seen a little controversy online from people who believe you shouldn’t work so closely with these animals. Often treating them like wild pets and they think there could be negative consequences of this - I was wondering what you’d say to these people?”
Well, a wild pet is a bit of a contradiction in terms haha. But, I’ve never treated lions as pets, number one. The criticism of getting up close and personal with the animals - what I always say to people is, let’s flip it on its head and say, well Josh, why are you interviewing me? And the answer to that is because of my relationship with lions. You wouldn’t be talking to me, and neither would so many other people, if I was just Kevin Richardson 'zookeeper' and I looked after some lions.
Josh: “ Yeah it’s true haha.”
Kevin: Yeah, it’s a serious point, but it is quite funny because it’s the very reason why you’re interviewing me and it’s what these hate groups are always on about, and it’s really what I find quite perplexing. They don’t seem to see the similarities with other personalities or people who have done a similar thing, or in fact worse, because they’ve interacted with animals in the wild. Jane Goodall comes to mind. Do we now blame Jane Goodall for why chimpanzee ownership is so big in the US?! There are many people who swim with sharks, interact with elephants, rhinos, polar bears, grizzly bears, cheetah, hyenas – you name it. But it seems to catch attention when it’s a lion. They’re very controversial animals. But again, I say everyone’s entitled to their own belief system and what they believe is good or bad. I know from where I’ve come, and the reasons why I do it today, and I know the benefits to both the lions and to what I can do in the greater scheme of things. For example, on a daily basis we get emails form all around the world and that really does tell us in which direction we’re going. I got an email from a girl saying that ‘I followed you from five years of age and you’ve always been an inspiration to me to become a vet, and now I’ve just graduated from my first year of Vet school, thanks to you’. Then you realise what you’re doing has a greater good.
I always say to people who ask this question - ‘the 90:10 principle’. Yes, there’s 10% of people who may think that I’m a Fruitloop and that I don’t do anything positive, but 90% of people do and 90% of people are influenced in a positive way. So, if I stopped, then what are we doing, you know? And you know, this is not forever Josh. My mandate is to look after the lions in my care until the day they die. They’re all getting old. We’ve got another 10 years, maybe 15 left in all the animals in the sanctuary, and then that’s that. You didn’t contact me to explore why having a lion as a pet is a good idea, you contacted me because of canned hunting and lion conservation. So, clearly that has got to you. It’s a narrative that’s been perpetuated since ‘The Lion Whisperer’ name came about and it’s been perpetuated by a group of people who firstly don’t really understand what I do. It’s like saying 'Jane Goodall - all she does is interact with chimpanzees', because of what I saw in a picture or a movie.
But you know, I know she stands for so much more than that, she’s an inspiration, she is an icon! Should we knock her down for her relationship with chimpanzees? Well yes, I suppose there are negatives to what she did. We can always look at the negatives and say she shouldn’t have been interacting with these wild chimpanzees and getting to know them on such a familiar basis; forming bonds and touching and interacting and tickling and chasing and doing all those things. But look at what she’s done for chimpanzees - that’s what I focus on."
Josh: "Yeah I think that’s a really interesting comparison and one that I’ve never quite thought of before in this context. It’s a really interesting point."
Kevin: "Yeah when it’s a lion, people immediately think that lions eat people and chimps are omnivores that don’t generally kill animals for survival and thus don't hurt humans. But if you ask me who is the more dangerous of the two? I would say in no uncertain terms a chimpanzee."
Josh: "I would probably agree with you as well, 100%. Obviously you do a lot of your promotions through social media – getting close and personal with these animals - Social media has led to many people trying to get intimate photos/video with wild animals, often putting themselves and the animals in danger. Do you think social media is a good or bad thing and do you think the content you post potentially has a negative impact?"
Kevin: "Basically, does content fuel stupidity? Because that’s really what you’re getting at. Does a picture of me with a lion inspire somebody to go tickle a lion’s nuts in the wild?"
Kevin: "You laugh, and I laugh, and most people laugh because it is ridiculous. That we are so influenced by the pictures that we see... you know, really? If I see Lewis Hamilton driving a car at mach one around a track, does that mean I get in my Ferrari on Monday and do mach one on the highway? Or my motorbike, I see a Motor GP on a Sunday and on Monday I think I’m Valentino Rossi, because I’ve got a Superbike? Which is quite easy to access, it’s not even that expensive relatively speaking, and I can go drive like a lunatic because I saw a picture or a video of Valentino Rossi doing it?
So, I think by and large most people who follow my account, realise they’re following someone who has dedicated their life to these animals and to Conservation. Yes, there are one or two, I talk again about the 90:10 principle. But those people are there whether I existed or not mate, they’re going to be there doing that anyway, and I think that’s the extent of it. It’s always been going on, it’s just now easier to take that video. People in the past have always been videoing stupid things, they just had nowhere to put it. Now they have places to put it. Whether I existed or not, I can tell you now, people are going to do stupid things with wild animals. And in fact, if you look at how many people over the years do stupid things with lions, it’s not that many actually. The fact is actually why do lions always get this media attention? Well, it’s because they’re lions."
Josh: "I agree and like the point too - generally some people are stupid, and they always have been."
Kevin: "Yeah hahha."
Josh: "So, do you have a life mission? Something that you really strive for every day and that you would like to achieve before the end of your life?"
Kevin: "Yeah well, it’s an interesting question because my life’s mission is changeable and changes. When I was younger my life’s mission was to own all the lions in my care and I achieved that. So, tick box. Did I stop there and say oh well my life’s mission is accomplished, let me just retire? Let me just you know, mic drop. Just drop the mic! Kevins outta here.
No, because then the mission changed and I said well I want to start my own foundation (@kevinrichardsonfoundation). So, we started the foundation and that’s going well, it’s going from strength to strength. So, you’re continually changing the bigger picture. Now the mission is to try and achieve the objectives of the foundation. So, the foundations 4 main objectives are really to:
(1) Bring canned hunting as we know it, and this competing trade, to an end or to a conclusion;
(2) Protect habitat and to make sure that we have habitat for lions and other animals to roam in;
(3) Education. Which is what we’ve talked about, so it encompasses all of that;
(4) Work with like-minded people and like-minded organisations to try and help people on the ground in other countries. So to use again my influence to say, listen guys there’s actually a project going on in Namibia that is doing really wonderful things and work in Etosha, or just to the west of Etosha, they need support. So, without influential people, no one would get to know about that and that’s where I try to use my influence. Go up to Etosha, do a YouTube video of the place and get the followers to see how they can reach into their pockets and support those initiatives, or donate to our foundation so we can continue to support the work out there."
Josh: "Yeah, I think that’s incredible. I think you’re doing everything right for a Conservation. I think those 4 points are really covering a broad range of everything that needs to be done."
Kevin: "There’s some who would disagree."
Josh: "Welllll, you’re always going to get haters and trolls aren’t you."
Kevin: "That’s what you have to do, just wade through that. It can get to a point where you find you can be a little bit demoralised by certain hate, but you have to realise that the more influence that you have in the world, the more hate that you’re going to attract. So, I suppose one of the things that always gets me up in the morning is that if people aren’t speaking about you, then you’re not current."
Josh: "So, I guess that’s something that you’ve developed over the years, a stronger chin? To take these things."
Kevin: "Yeah, broad shoulders and a very tough chin."
Josh: "I can see yeah haha. I guess my last question would be, are you hopeful for the future of lions?"
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Kevin: "Well you know, I have to be. I mean, it’s my fighting spirit. My fighting nature says yes, because if I come out of the blocks saying no there is no hope for lions, then I might as well shut down my foundation, euthanise the lions in my care and go and retire on a desert island somewhere and just drink myself into oblivion. But, that’s not me. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I will fight for things incrementally. I’m not a dreamer in the sense that I dream of the unrealistic. So, I think going forward that unless we do something serious about human population explosion, we are farting against thunder.
But I think if we can get that under control and we start to protect certain habitats that are earmarked as really important tracts of land, then I do think that we are going to be able to ensure the future of lions. Maybe not as my grandparents knew it, maybe not as I knew it, but maybe in some form that is still palatable to the future. We can’t look at Africa and yesteryear Africa and say that’s how it should be, because I think that’s a bygone era, based on where we find ourselves. And we can’t exactly go and cull half the human population, because you know when you talk to people and you say 'who agrees that human population needs to be culled?' Everyone puts their hand up. And then you go, 'who volunteers?!' And nothing haha, you know? No one is going to volunteer to be culled, just as no animal’s going to volunteer to be culled. But we certainly have a big problem with population explosion."
Josh: "How would you solve it? Last question ha!"
Kevin: "Haha. China’s busy trying to put their two cents towards it - coronavirus. We had Ebola breakout. And you know what, I don’t think it’s up to me to think how to solve it. I think that mother nature and the world has a canny old way of sorting out fleas. And I think that humans can be likened to a bad case of fleas on planet Earth. Maybe Earth will shake us off one day and carry on, I don’t know."
Josh: "Who knows. Alright, well that’s all I had to ask you Kevin. Thank you again, I really appreciate everything you said and for your time. I think you should be really proud of everything that you’ve done and accomplished. Your foundation - I think your mission is incredible. I have followed you for a number of years, seeing how close you are with these animals was probably one of the reasons why I got into lion conservation and undertook my work Namibia."
Kevin: "So why didn’t you go pet a lion Josh? Why didn’t you go pet a lion because you saw me doing it?"
Josh: "Yeah, I should’ve done really, it’s the smart thing to do."
Kevin: "Yeah, I think you became a lion conservationist and I don’t know how old you are, but you are a thoughtful young lad and you’re thinking and doing something. You’ve come from the UK, you’ve gone to Namibia, you’ve seen it first-hand. You’ve heard the arguments of the trophy hunters, you’ve heard the conservationists, you’ve drawn your own conclusions - that’s impressive. If I’ve been able to have a small role in that and helping you, then I will continue."
Josh: "Well there you go, keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing!"
Kevin: "Thank you."