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The Lion Whisperer Shows the Softer Side of these African Cats

Dec 01, 2014 06:17 PM EST

There's a reason the African lion is the most feared predator in the wild, given their strength and agility. But one man known as "The Lion Whisperer" is showing the softer side of these African cats, going against the common notion that they are just mindless meat-eating machines.

Kevin Richardson, a self-taught animal behaviorist, gets up close and personal with a band of 26 lions as shown during a CBS report with correspondent Clarissa Ward, which aired Nov. 30.

In the heart of South Africa, in the town of Johannesburg, Richardson spends his days with his pride of 400-pound lions, which he adopted to save them from a legal, but cruel tourism industry.

Canned Hunting: Legal and Lethal

Lion cubs are the cute and cuddly attractions in dozens of tourist parks, such as The Lion Park where Richardson once worked. Tourists, many of them American, pay top dollar to pet these beautiful creatures, fueling this multi-million dollar industry. But little do they know that with each pet of fur, they are directly contributing their death.

In the controversial practice of "canned hunting," participants pay up to $100,000 to hunt the animal in an enclosure, keeping it as a sort of trophy. Especially for those cats that have spent their entire lives in captivity - such as those in the aforementioned petting parks - the practice is essentially like shooting fish in a barrel.

These parks are constantly breeding lions to ensure that it has a year-round supply of cubs. As the lions get older and become more dangerous to humans, they are supposedly given to good homes, when in reality most of them become victims of canned hunting.

"Well, the question I have is where are these good homes? Because I'd like to visit a few of those good homes myself, and maybe even some of my cats could go to these good homes," Richardson told CBS. "The reality is there aren't any."

Some park operators, including Richardson's former boss Rodney Fuhr, even claim that their facilities aid conservation efforts and create interest in the animals.

"There is no other market for adult lions other than the hunting industry," Chris Mercer, who is running a campaign to outlaw the legal practice, said in the CBS report. "Lions eat meat. Meat's expensive. So every day that huntable lion remains with the breeder is money lost. They have to get rid of it. And it's the hunting operation that takes it."

King of the Jungle?

The reality is that African lions are quickly becoming an endangered species, and the canned hunting industry isn't helping. Their numbers have been cut in half since 1980, and experts estimate there are fewer than 21,000 of them in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Defenders of Wildlife.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the African lion as "vulnerable." And though some contend that trophy hunting is necessary to finance some African communities, "there is concern that current management regimes can lead to unsustainable offtakes," an IUCN report noted.

But recent findings from the World Travel and Tourism Council say that travel and tourism have contributed about 9.5 percent of South Africa's economy, as well as supported 645,000 jobs and generated $200,00 million annually.

Regardless of the benefits of canned hunting, and the legality of it, wildlife advocates are nonetheless calling for an end to it.

"Listing African lions as an endangered species and banning trophy imports to the US would send an important message," wrote Jeff Flocken, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in a National Geographic op-ed. "The African lion is disappearing, and the global community needs to act to stop the trend before it is too late or too costly to reverse."

Though canned hunting may still be on ongoing issue, it's one that Richardson's lions don't have to worry about. For now, he will still be running and playing with his adopted family, as an equal.

"I formed relationships with a bunch of lions, unknowingly at the time what the consequences potentially later on down the line would be," he told CBS. "But I'll be the first to admit that it's an emotional connection that I have. And I can't just turn my back on them now."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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