South Africa's Lion Whisperer: How He Became One & Where To Visit Him

South Africa’s Lion Whisperer: How He Became One & Where To Visit Him

He lets us see the softer side of lions we haven't seen anywhere else!

Over the years, we’ve heard about the famous dog whisperer, Cesar Milan and other pet whisperers who have made national news. But to hear about a wildlife whisperer — a lion whisperer, no less — is something most of us weren’t prepared for. Enter Kevin Richardson, South Africa’s resident lion whisperer who made his first media appearance in 2003 in a documentary called Dangerous Companions

His so-called dangerous companions were none other than lions — one of the world’s most fearsome apex predators. But what ordinary people like us would consider dangerous was hardly that for Kevin. 

Also read: 19 Things To Do In Johannesburg, South Africa

The first time I watched the documentary, I started with low expectations. I thought perhaps this was another overeager bunny hugger who gets mauled by powerful mammals. After all, isn’t that what eventually happens to people who cross the line with fierce predators? Instead, what I saw was a protective and unpretentious man who didn’t care about showing off or teaching people how to tame some lions. 

lion whisperer

Kevin, somehow, had a deeper understanding of the lions under his care. Seeing lions accept him in their pride as one of their own completely floored me. They’d lick him, hug him, and even allowed him to sleep beside them. Ever since that documentary — and many others that followed — people often attributed the moniker, lion whisperer, to Kevin alone (no, he didn’t coin that term for himself); and his reputation slowly grew in Africa, America, and Australia, to name a few. 

So, how exactly does the lion whisperer of South Africa manage to establish himself as part of a pride? Where is he taking his unique ability, and can you visit the sanctuary where he works? I’m going to explain it to you as clearly and concisely as I can. Prepare to see some awesome photos too!

Where the lion whisperer met his lions

After following the lion whisperer for several years, I wanted to gain a deeper insight into what seemed like his God-given talent on lion interactions. So three years ago, I finally bought Kevin Richardson’s autobiography. 

Kevin’s fondness with animals started when he was a kid; and like most South African boys, he wanted to become a game ranger — if not a bird trainer, veterinarian, or zookeeper. You’ll be surprised — with the reputation that Kevin has now, he saw none of those ambitions come true. 

lion whisperer

But you know what they say: When a door closes, another one opens! And that’s exactly what happened when he became an animal welfare and enrichment worker at a lion park in Johannesburg. Here, he met the very first lions under his care: Tau and Napoleon. In his autobiography, Part of the Pride, he describes these two lions as his soulmates. “I had no way of knowing it at that time, but these two young lions were to become my best friends — my brothers.” 

While caring for Tau and Napoleon, along with other lions at the park, Kevin learned a valuable practice that he encourages all animal sanctuaries to abide by. “I believed then, and I still do today, that it’s important to keep animals in captivity stimulated and engaged,” he said in his book. 

For Kevin, that meant giving the lions bigger enclosures, moving each pride to a different enclosure every week or so, and taking his lions out for a walk so they can act on their natural instincts outside of a sanctuary. Sounds like hard work, and definitely not something you’ve seen zookeepers do. But these unorthodox ways are precisely what gave the lion whisperer his edge as a certified animal behaviourist!

Part of the pride

lion whisperer

Now let’s get to the juicy bit; I’m sure you’re still wondering how on earth can lions accept the lion whisperer as part of their pride just like that. Well, Kevin doesn’t do it just like that. He has no profound secrets. But he does put in a lot of time and effort in building relationships with his animals

So much time, in fact, that he would need to start relationship-building with the lion from its cub years to know each of their personalities, and establish a strong sense of trust and integrity in the future. “When I work with lions, I find that if I’ve known the lion since birth or at a very early age, and I’ve spent plenty of time with him when he’s young, then I’ll have a much better relationship with him when he matures.” 

You should know that Kevin also refuses to walk inside an enclosure with a stick or any object that could make a lion doubt his good intentions. He walks in with only the clothes on his back and an imitation of a roar (he does this to let the pride know that he’s going to hang out for a while, #respect!). 

Also read: Wildlife Tourism: When Is It Ethical?

It’s only with such an intimate bond that he’s able to give his lions the best kind of sanctuary life. When you watch his Youtube channel, you’ll see how the animals benefit from this kind of relationship with Kevin too. He knows his lions so well, he can sense if one of them isn’t feeling good, has gotten into a brawl with its pride mates, or just feels downright grumpy in the morning. 

With this, Kevin is able to respond immediately by calling the vet or taking a lion out for a walk to release the tension. No wonder the lions in his sanctuary trust him!

If you were looking for a magical explanation behind the lion whisperer’s ability to understand and be accepted by these dangerous predators, you won’t find it. The lions that Kevin raised as cubs see him as a family member because he’s earned their trust over time with nurture, respect, and patience. Maybe that’s what being a lion whisperer is all about!

The Lion Whisperer’s advocacy

You might be wondering, “If Kevin loves his lions so much, why doesn’t he just introduce them to the wild?”

It’s not that easy. Lions are currently classified as a vulnerable species whose population continues to decrease. Currently, the lion population in Africa has dwindled down to less than 20 percent of its former range. This is mainly due to habitat loss, the canned hunting and cub petting industry, and illegal trade. If this goes on, we won’t have any more lions left in the wild in less than 20 years. 

Kevin Richardson doesn’t want to perpetuate keeping lions in captivity. However, he wants to do his part in protecting lions by giving them a quality life; this involves providing them with enrichment programs and healthcare inside a sanctuary.

lion whisperer

To help spread global awareness about the plight of lions, Kevin started The Lion Whisperer Youtube channel. This is where he talks about the current state of lions in the wild. If you want to know how to help save these predators, this is the channel to watch! Not to mention, he uses a GoPro to take his subscribers up close and personal to the many lions living in his sanctuary, allowing us to appreciate their softer side. Get to know the fan favourites: Meg and Amy (rest in peace Amy!), Bobcat and Gabby, and Vayetse’s pride

Aside from this, Kevin answers all of his audience’s questions about his work and lion behaviour. All the while walking beside the big cats of South Africa and filming breathtaking sceneries of South Africa’s grasslands. Now that’s unique content you won’t get tired of!

The sanctuary and the foundation

Kevin’s come a long way from being an employee at a lion park. In the past five years, the lion whisperer established the official Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary in the Welgedacht Private Game Reserve, just an hour east of Johannesburg. This is where he has relocated several animals under his care, such as lions, hyenas, and even black leopards. You may volunteer at the park and book a morning tour to meet the lions in person. Yup, with the lion whisperer himself as your guide!

Fun fact: There are currently 24 lions, 11 spotted hyenas, four leopards, and two striped hyenas in the sanctuary!

But his best initiative yet is the Kevin Richardson Foundation. This is a non-profit organisation that aims to conserve wildlife by securing land; as well as investing in educational programs that teach communities about integrated conservation. 

Also read: 10 Memorable Things to Do In Tanzania, “The Soul of Africa”!

lion whisperer

Kevin Richardson never planned on being dubbed the lion whisperer. But he has smartly used the moniker to create an influential platform to further his causes. And we say, keep it up, Kevin. We’re more passionate about conserving wildlife thanks to you; and someday soon, we might just book a ticket to South Africa to volunteer in your sanctuary!

All image credits go to the Kevin Richardson Official Facebook Page

About Author

Therese Sta. Maria
Therese Sta. Maria

Therese's close friends know that if they haven’t seen her around recently, then she’s probably having an adventure with her luggage and camera in hand. Though she loves staying at home and spending lazy afternoons with friends, there are times when she has to be "away from home to feel at home," — that’s when she’s bitten by the travel bug. See her travels on Instagram @reesstamaria.


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