The Lion Whisperer Kevin Richardson’s promotion of interacting and walking with lions was seriously called into question recently when one of his lionesses mauled a young woman to death on his farm, Welgedacht, which shares an unfenced border with the Dinokeng, a Big-5 game reserve near Pretoria.
Richardson and a colleague took three lions for a walk in the reserve some weeks back and one of his lionesses apparently chased an impala, eventually encountering the 22-year-old woman two kilometres away.
Richardson has had much to say against the cub-petting and canned lion hunting industry and positions himself a champion against such practices yet conservationists state that his own brand of conservation – unrestrained walking and the close interaction of captive lions – is no different.
Big cat biologist, Luke Dollar, told National Geographic that “While it may be a thrilling experience for a person to do, and they may think they are helping wildlife by doing so, I don’t see an obvious connection. If we love these cats so much why do we feel the need to touch them or hug them or walk with them, as though that is a natural occurrence?”
“Behaviours and programs that skirt the reality of our place in the food chain seem to be an accident waiting to happen,” says Dollar.
A group called BJWT Watchdog, which has critically monitored Richardson’s interactions with lions, has pointed out that Richardson’s lions are starring in an upcoming movie called “Charlie the White Lion”. The film is being shot entirely on location and explores the relationship between a young girl, Mia, and a white lion cub named Charlie. Watchdog posted photos of Richardson and the young girl and other children petting a white lion cub during the shoot.
“It seems contradictory then that lion cubs which Richardson helped procure specifically for the purpose of making a movie with children that’s supposed to teach people not to interact with lion cubs,” said the group.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), one of South Africa’s most respected and long-standing conservation organizations, have also come out strongly against close human interactions with large carnivores.
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Their position paper from October 2015 clearly states that the educational value of captive-predator facilities is questionable in that “they give the general public the wrong impression that it is acceptable to hold carnivores in captivity. At best these facilities offer ‘edutainement’ with no real measurable change in behaviour that promotes conservation.”
EWT have long warned that captive carnivores do not have an innate fear of humans and often consider humans as potential prey or associate them with food. “This makes them dangerous to humans and interactions can result in serious injury or death,” says Dr Kelly Marnewick Senior Trade Officer for EWT’s Wildlife in Trade Program.
Apart from this latest incident, there have been multiple incidents of lions and other large predators seriously mauling or killing visitors at captive facilities. Last year, a captive-bred cheetah killed a 3-year old boy on John Varty’s Tiger Farm in the Free State. In 2015, a tourist was killed when she was attacked by a lion through an open car window in a lion park in Gauteng while another tourist was bitten in the same park a few months earlier.
Marnewick points out that most interactions are done with no means of restraining the carnivore and there is no barrier between the visitor and the carnivore and too few handlers to prevent an incident from happening or to manage an incident effectively should it happen.
EWT believes that ecotourism is important for the South African economy but needs to be done in such a manner that it promotes the long-term conservation of our wildlife heritage. “The captive-keeping of carnivores, and touch programmes, do not contribute to the sustainable, responsible use of our wildlife resources and in most cases are detrimental to conservation.”
Tourist Industry members have called for strict regulations on captive wildlife facilities. Managing Director at Fair Trade Tourism, Jane Edge, says there is a need for the industry to have set guidelines around captive wildlife operations. Edge said Fair Trade Tourism is in the process of drafting such guidelines, which will be released in the coming months.
“We call on people not to interact with captive wildlife at all,” says Marnewick. “We also call on government to ban these activities to ensure the safety of all people, and the welfare of these animals.”