Kevin Richardson, aka the Lion Whisperer, embraces a lioness in a photo at the Kingdom of the White Lion park in Broederstroom, near Johannesburg South Africa. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)
Kevin Richardson lives up close with lions in a way no one else in the world does – he loves lions, and his lions love him back. So when the famed “lion whisperer” says people can’t help but put themselves at risk of death around the animals, whatever the safety rules are, he knows the lure all too well.
“People these days are always seeking out that extreme experience,” he told Yahoo Travel. “You are always going to get people who think that the rules are there to be broken and that they ‘have a way’ with animals and therefore nothing bad will ever happen to them.”
The South Africa tourism industry’s uneasy relationship between humans and lions was dealt another blow this week when an American tourist was killed by a lion that jumped through her window while riding a car through Lion Park outside Johannesburg – the second attack at the park this year. The victim, Katherine Chappell, 29, was visiting South Africa as a volunteer to protect local wildlife.
An enclosure at Lion Park, with safety warnings posted. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
The attack is under investigation, and there are conflicting accounts of how many windows in the car were open, and for how long. But the tour company that employs Chappell’s driver, tour guide Pierre Potgieter, said she rolled down her passenger-side window to take pictures of a pride of lions shortly before the attack and didn’t see that lioness approaching. Other reports said the driver’s-side window was also down.
Lion Park warns its guests to keep windows rolled up at all times, with signs posted and leaflets handed out. While the lioness in the attack has been removed from the park (she won’t be euthanized), business is going ahead as usual.
A lioness among the drivers at Kruger National Park in South Africa. (Photo: Martijn Barendse/Flickr)
Richardson, a South Africa native, first started bonding with lions in the late 1990s at Lion Park’s cub-petting area. He soon began working at the park and developed a preternatural rapport with them that lasts to this day, playing and napping with the cubs he befriended after they grew into 300-pound adults.
But such a relationship is impossible for visitors to South African attractions such as Lion Park, which advertise the opportunity to be just yards away from these beautiful, deadly animals. In a June cover feature by Smithsonian.com, Richardson acknowledged the paradox in someone like him warning people not to do as he does.
Yahoo Travel reached Richardson by email at Dinokeng Game Reserve in South Africa, where he has built a wildlife sanctuary for the more than two-dozen lions he considers family. When asked if there’s a good rule of thumb for how much distance a park visitor should keep from lions, he said there really isn’t one.
Kevin Richardson is treated like family by lions because they’ve come to know him since they were cubs. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)
“Each animal is an individual and has different tolerance levels, just like humans,” he said. “People need to accept the inherent dangers associated with viewing wildlife just like they would with any other activity that could be dangerous. They also need to respect the animals and not push the boundaries.”
An inability to respect boundaries may have been what led an Australian tourist to be non-fatally attacked at Lion Park in March. The South African newspaper The Citizen reported the man and his friend stepped out of their car to take a picture of a lion, only for a lioness to bite the man soon after by biting the man through an open window.
In the case of this week’s attack, CNN cited an anonymous source saying a written warning to keep windows rolled up was found on the passenger’s side of the car.
Richardson said that some tourists in such an environment are simply incapable of obeying the rules without strict supervision.
“You can’t realistically expect people to keep windows closed all the time, because how else are you going to capture that photo? Certainly not through a closed window,” he said.
An adult resident at Lion Park. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Richardson left Lion Park several years ago over concerns about what happens to the cubs after they reach the age of 2, when they’re too dangerous to interact with humans yet unfit to survive in the wild. Because space in every national park is limited, they’re often sold to the roughly 180 breeding farms in South Africa or introduced to “canned” hunting where tourists pay up to $40,000 to kill fenced-in lions for sport. Canned hunting results in about 1,000 dead lions and nearly $100 million dollars a year in South Africa.
Lion Park told 60 Minutes in November 2014 that it had not sold any lions for canned hunting in two years, but Richardson is skeptical that the inevitable overflow of lions there won’t lead at least some of them to become trophies or live in unsavory homes.
“They state that they now keep all their lions or donate them to good homes,” Richardson said. “This is not a sustainable situation and the bottom will fall out. It’s just a matter of time before they run out of space and/or suitable donor facilities and then the inevitable will happen, because lion farming is a closed system.”