(Ep. 3/4) Talking Wild Lion Conservation with Kevin Richardson

📸 Josh Robertson

Josh: "Could you tell us a little bit about the conservation of lions in the wild?"

Kevin: “It’s not happy homes and gardens for lions in the wild, as many people around the world still to this day believe. I think the biggest problem with lions, as a whole, is that they seem to fall into this blind-spot of conservation. So, the people in the know, know the problems. But the people we need to reach out to think there are no worries for lions. They went to South Africa last year and they saw plenty of lions on their Safari - they went to Kruger, or Madikwe, or Pilanesberg, or wherever they went, and they saw lions. So, they are shocked when you tell them that lions are threatened and that they’ve lost half their numbers in the past 50 years and their numbers have dropped to as little as 15,000 in the wild throughout Africa and they’ve lost >90% of their former range. And people are staggered you know, they think that’s impossible.

📸 Panthera

I think it’s very complicated for lions, because in different areas/regions lions are faring differently. So, if you look at central, West and North Africa - it’s dismal. If you look at East Africa, lion numbers are plummeting, and that’s where we’re seeing the biggest knock. But if you come to South Africa, lion numbers are stable, if not increasing slightly. So, it’s very confusing. I think that’s the problem - how do we get this clear message out that lions are, I think should be endangered, but they’re actually listed as vulnerable. But they were not so long ago listed as the least concern (on the IUCN Red List). So, it’s a message that’s very hard to get out and largely because of the captive lion industry, where we have what is estimated to be 11,000 - 12,000 lions in captivity. That’s just in South Africa. So, people come to South Africa, and wherever they go there are lions. So, as you can imagine, they (tourists) think to themselves 'there’s nothing wrong with lions… it’s not like rhino'. But there are more white rhino in South Africa than there are lions in the entire continent of Africa.

📸 Roberto Isotti

Josh: “Wow. So why is it do you think that lions' numbers are increasing in South Africa, but dwindling in other parts of Africa, like central, West, and East Africa?"

Kevin: "It’s a good question… and it has an answer. But it’s a contentious issue, and it’s a hot topic of debate, as is everything to do with lions in this arena.

Probably the biggest reason is because our lions live largely in fenced protected areas. So, South Africa has a conservation model that has been around for many many years, stating that we should keep people from animals and animals from people. Hence, we have these reserves that have boundaries and animals stay within these boundaries. Even Kruger National Park has porous boundaries. But nevertheless, there is still, especially in the conflict areas, a definite demarcation between communities and animals. Which obviously has other unintended consequences, because as nature intended, lions and animals should be free ranging not kept in enclosed areas. So, some would argue that Kruger National Park, even though it’s the size of Israel, is still enclosed on certain boundaries, and most of our other parks are totally closed. What we find is that when lions are enclosed and protected, they do well. You don’t need to do anything to allow lions to do what they do naturally. They breed quite prolifically and as long as they’ve got prey and some space, they do quite well.

📸 Martin Harvey

East Africa, where we’re seeing big decreases in lion populations, is where we see a huge amount of conflict. There are a lot of burgeoning human populations spilling over into natural systems, and with that comes human-lion conflict, and when there’s conflict we know who’s going to lose that battle… it’s always the lion. And you know, Kenya for example doesn’t have trophy hunting. They banned hunting back in the 80’s. Tanzania is more pro-hunting, but in both countries we see a decline in lions - proportionately the same. It’s even disingenuous to imply that trophy hunting is the main cause of the demise of lion populations… it’s not. It’s lack of habitat. Habitat loss is THE biggest problem that, not just lions, all animals face. And because lions are the apex, indicator species, they’re the first to feel it – but if they’re wiped out of areas where they once occurred, unfortunately it doesn’t look good for the rest of the species falling down that pyramid."

📸 Josh Robertson

Josh: "Yeah, I think you raised some really great points there, I couldn’t agree more. We touched a lot there on the negatives there, but can you just talk about why lions are good for people and why they’re good for the environment?"

Kevin: "Yeah, where do I start! The positives of having lions are they are obviously an iconic species. They’ve been revered by humans since the dawn of mankind. If you go around the world, it’s not elephants that adorn the streets of major cities, it’s always a lion. You can go from São Paulo to China to the UK, and it’s always a statue of a lion. And it’s not a tiger either, so it’s not just because lions are big cats. They have always been revered by people. Now, obviously you can’t go to communities and say man has always revered lions, so you should protect them!

You know, the elephant in the room, that no one seems to want to talk about, I think is overpopulation of humans. And unfortunately, in developing countries like Africa, it’s probably in many respects at its worst. So, it’s a real difficult one when you start saying to people you need to protect these lions over your livelihood. It’s very easy for a privileged westerner like myself to come at the problem from the animal’s perspective, but I’ve always tried to, from a conservation standpoint, tried to see both sides of the equation. And quite frankly, when you go out to these rural parts of Africa, when you see how difficult and how tough it is, you’re not going to be too pleased when a lion takes out your cow, because that’s your cash.

It’s like me coming into your lovely home in the UK and stealing your money. You’re not going to be too charmed about it, whether you left your house open or not. You’re going to say that’s wrong, you shouldn’t be taking my cash. I always try see it from the community perspective and that’s where the difficulties lie. But, you know when we start to show that there are benefits to having lions, and that these benefits can be economical, because not everyone loves lions as much as I do. I often say to people ‘would I love lions as much as I do, if I’d never met Tau and Napoleon?’ You know I probably would’ve gone through my life still saying yes, I like lions. Who doesn’t? I’ve never met a person who says they hate lions, besides the communities who deal with lions on a daily basis. But I’ve never really met a Westerner who said no I hate lions…Hyenas yes, but not lions.

Be that as it may, I don’t have to live with lions on a daily basis, you know in the conflict zone. And would I have the same reverence for lions as I do speaking to you now, if I hadn’t had formed such close bonds with them?

There is that old saying by Baba Dioum that ‘we only conserve what we love, we only love what we know, and we only know what we are taught’. Now that’s profound, because I think education is key and we do need to create awareness, and we do need to educate, and that’s our role or responsibility to these communities. We need to go in there and show that there are benefits to having lions about, direct benefits, i.e. running water or electricity or it might not be from the lions themselves, but because people are coming to view lions in these areas, then they have these benefits and it can be in these really rural areas where tourists don’t even want to go. That’s the key to keeping lions healthy and alive and well in those areas, where they really are wild.

📸 Josh Robertson

It’s not all doom and gloom, but we have to have some drastic changes in the way we go about conservation, because if we carry on doing things the way we’ve always done them, and we’ve been banging on about the same thing since I started working with lions, year in and year out, lions will keep decreasing in numbers. Somebody asked me 'how many lions were there 22 years ago when you started working with lions?' I’ll tell you when I started working, numbers in the hundreds of thousands were thrown around, someone would say between 110,000 - 115,000. Others would say 120,000 lions in Africa, just 22 years ago. And now I’m speaking to you and were talking about 15,000, and in those 22 years conservation organisations have been saying the same thing, but yet where are the tangible results?

📸 Jackie Badenhorst

Josh: “So where do you think they’re going wrong? How do we get this tangible result? Is it all about working more with these local communities? Perhaps we’re not doing that as much as we should be? Perhaps we’re not working as much in collaboration as we should be? What do you think?”

Kevin: "My honest belief is that we need to adopt a South African model, and that’s going to send a lot of people into orbit because they’re going to go ‘oh it’s not natural or how it’s meant to be’. But I’m going to go, yes - but it’s not natural that we have 8 billion people on the planet. So, we need to do the best we can to preserve these areas. You know I cringed at the thought of fencing the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. But if I had to say to you that might be the only way that we are going to be able to protect these animals, and quite frankly if you look at other countries around the world, that’s what they’ve done, that’s what they had to do you know?

If you think about it in the United States, in some areas if they didn’t proclaim and fence off and heavily protect certain areas, Yellowstone springs to mind, there would be nothing left. Bison were down to nothing from millions of animals, brought to the brink of extinction. If it wasn’t for intensive projects, protecting and conserving them, we wouldn’t have bison today. That is one of the things I always look at and say to people look, let’s just look at South Africa. Our lion population is in the region of 2,700 - 2,800, maybe even around 3,000 wild lions for the last 10 years, if you look at our numbers – which is a good sign, a stable population is what you want. Everyone is like why can’t they increase? Well no, these parks can’t sustain an increase in population. But it takes South Africa out of these declining lion populations, as we haven’t had that happen."

📸 Martin Harvey

Josh: “I guess one of the drawbacks from having fenced reserves is the lack of connectivity with these wild populations?”

Yes, and that’s the problem. You’re 100% right. In many respects you’re starting to become responsible for the loss of genetic diversity and the isolation of these populations. But, here’s the but… what’s the alternative? It’s all very well for people to say, here is what you must and must not do, but what’s the alternative? You can’t say to someone don’t do something and then don’t give them an alternative. The alternative is leave it as it is, and then next year I talk to you and maybe we say we’ve got 12,000 lions. I’m not saying South Africa is the only conservation success model, there are other countries too. I’m just trying to make a clear distinction between the success stories and the ones that aren’t working."

Josh: "Some really good points there, thanks Kevin. Let’s move on to your work and how your efforts are contributing to lion conservation”

Kevin: Yeah look, in the early years I would say to you zero. There was no contribution because it was merely me and my few lions that I was working with. But as the name Kevin and ‘The Lion Whisperer’, and people of the world start knowing who you are and want to work with you – some people do and others don’t want to work with you, which is fine I’ve got broader shoulders these days.

But nowadays the ability to spread awareness through social media and through the work I do with collaborative partners can raise huge amounts of money. I mean, for example one guy I work with David Yarrow, he’s raised in the region of £5 million for charities, and every year it gets more and more. We are talking about substantial amounts of money and this is what’s going to be needed. So, contributing to that is important, helping to raise funds for other organisations like the painted dog conservation incorporated.

You know, it’s not always just about lions, because if we can protect and save habitat, again what I spoke of earlier, then everyone’s happy – the elephants, rhinos etc. Its multifaceted. You can’t just say that my contribution is XY or Z, everything you do has some effect – some may be negative, but by and large the yardstick measure is for me, the positives are going in the right direction. There’s more awareness, more conversation, more consciousness – very important words for me, consciousness. If we start to have more consciousness and reflectiveness, and we start to self-reflect, we start to see how we impact the environment. And that starts to have knock-on positives in terms of behaviour. So that can even be talking about single-use plastics, water usage and all of those other kinds of things, because we start to become conscious of our environment and that’s important. You know, somewhere along your walk you start to realise you do have an ability to perpetuate some good. It’s really horrible in this day and age that if someone is doing good, we have to question why they’re doing good? It’s not great. But that’s the way the human make-up is now. But I believe I can utilise my profile to do something good… otherwise it would just be me and my lions and basically, they’d live a good life… but I think they have a bigger purpose."

📸 K. Richardson

Josh: "I agree. Okay, I’m on the last few questions here! What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in conservation over the last 10 years?"

Kevin: "In the last 10 years I think the biggest change is social media and the noise. I think never before have more ignorant people been given a platform to state their opinions, so strongly, with zero knowledge and/or experience on the topic. But what it does do is it causes hate, it fuels fires and it distracts and confuses. As much as I always say to people, social media is a really, really good thing for conservation - I mean look at the Australia fires the message got out there very quickly, people around the world rallied together and raised substantial amounts of money. David Yarrow again, in conjunction with some other NGOs that I work with, they aimed at hitting a $2 million mark, and I mean just a week and a bit after launching that campaign they are already over US$1 million, which is really impressive when people get together.

The problem is that there is so much hate and there’s so much resistance against people that are actually fighting for the same thing at the end of the day. If they put their differences aside and just said, yes let’s agree to disagree, I don’t love everything that you do, because that’s human. You know, ‘we’re going to love you until we find some reason not to love you and then we’re going to hate you’. But I’ve learnt over the years - I don’t hate people who do things differently to me. I need to understand why their narrative is not my narrative and their rationale and reasoning and their walk is not my walk. And I always encourage people, 'walk a mile in my shoes before you judge'. And I’ve really adapted that over the years to look at other sides of the equation and to really try and be collaborative and be positive.

I think positivity is an important thing too. But in conservation we can keep talking about these things, we can keep shouting and typing on our keyboards, but it’s not going to change anything. It’s just going to make people more and more angry and more and more confused. I think these days there are a lot of normal people out there who are so confused as to what to do. They don’t have a clear direction as to where to go and who to support, because if I tell you that I am supporting this NGO, you might give me 15 reasons why they're horrible people and why they’re going to steal your money and run away with it. And then you tell me an NGO and I give you five reasons why they are thieves. And someone will give you 10 reasons why Kevin Richardson should never be trusted, because he’s just supporting his own ego. And I will say this about somebody who said that about me. And you know, where to from there? I think we need to just take stock and I don’t know, kind of try get along?

The problem is that when you come onto my Instagram, you know who is running it. You’re speaking to the man behind it. The problem is the anonymous people on the web. You know, they get away with perpetuating stories that are untrue and there is no recourse. People can’t find them. If they really wanted to they could, there’s just too much energy and effort and what not. So, people just get away with saying whatever they want."

Josh: "So in your opinion, what’s the best way for people around the world to protect wildlife? You’ve talked about people only protecting what they understand and what they love, so I guess education would be a huge part for you?"

📸 Martin Harvey

Yeah, education is a big part because, I think if we can educate the youth - the youth is a huge part for me. I love the youth. I love their minds. Their minds think differently. They do believe they can conquer and change, and that is important and I think given the right tools they can make change. We old people become stubborn, you know, you get set in our ways, and you don’t want to do anything differently and you don’t want young people telling you how to do things because you’re a conservationist who’s been working for 22 years… I hear that all the time. And I’m like, if you can tell me after I’ve been working for 22 years how I can do it differently, I am only too happy to hear. Most of the young people tell me, have you ever thought about doing it like this? Because they come at it from a new perspective. So, education is really, really key. Because I think these people will change, and make change, and be part of positive change. And they’re not scared too, which is great!

The other thing is, obviously we do need to recognise the protection of habitat. Habitat protection is key to preserving lions. If we don’t preserve habitats, we can educate all we want, but they need to go hand-in-hand. There needs to be this will to protect. But now the problem is, the young people might be armed with the information and they might have the right ideas, but they do not have the money. So, money is a big driving force. They say that, I think it was in the region of $1 billion a year could protect the entire biodiversity of Africa. That’s sans (without) trophy hunting and tourism. $1 billion a year - now it sounds like a lot of money, but in the broad scheme of things it’s not. There’re people who we know, who are walking this planet today, who could single-handedly protect Africa’s wildlife by themselves. But, there is no will to do it. You see what I’m saying?"

📸 Martin Harvey

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