The following is a script of "The Lion Whisperer" which aired on Nov. 30, 2014. Clarissa Ward is the correspondent. Randall Joyce, producer.
The African Lion is the most feared predator in the wild. It is designed to kill. But tonight we'll show you a very different side of these awe-inspiring animals. Our guide is South Africa's self-taught animal behaviourist, Kevin Richardson. Getting up close and personal with lions is his life's work. It has earned him the nickname "The Lion Whisperer." We visited his sanctuary, a few hours outside of Johannesburg, where Richardson spends most of his days with his 26 adopted lions. But the story of how he ended up with an extended family of huge cats reveals some disturbing truths about a South African tourism industry with a sinister side.
We strapped a couple of small cameras onto Kevin Richardson to get a good look at the unique relationship he has with these animals. First stop this morning: finding two of his lions, Gabby and Bobcat. When they hear his call they rush out to greet him like a long lost friend. This emotional bond is incredibly rare.
[Kevin Richardson: How was last night? Did you enjoy? Did you have a good time?]
His ability to interact with them so freely is a result of the fact that he has known them since they were cubs -- when Richardson worked at a lion park for tourists. All of these animals were born in captivity and can never be released into the wild. But they are far from tame and wouldn't accept any other human being getting this close to them.
[Kevin Richardson: Have you had a long day today? It's been horrible. It's been a terrible day. You had to spend the entire day out in the bush. What a nightmare. You're very heavy my boy. Can you get off me? Thank you.]
Richardson himself acknowledges that the boundaries are different with each animal. A lesson he learned the hard way when he was bitten by a lion he didn't know well. We kept our cameras at a safe distance and at times shot from a drone hovering overhead.
Clarissa Ward: You don't get nervous at all when she's licking your face like that?
Kevin Richardson: No. You've got to have trust that she's not going to do anything except to tend to bite you like that.
"They are really just big, scared animals that are designed to kill ... They'd rather run away than confront."
Clarissa Ward: So right now she's just playing?
Kevin Richardson: She's just playing, yeah. It all depends on how you roll with them. If you kind of stiffen up and pretend that you're all nervous, then they stiffen up. And they want to grab you. And they want to claw you. And they want to bite you, even if you know them.
Clarissa Ward: Does she know that she's stronger than you?
Kevin Richardson: I don't know if she consciously thinks that she's stronger than me. I think she just respects the fact that, you know, I'm part of her group. And she wants me on my back now. Oh, my gorgeous. Oh, you're a nightmare, you lions.
This is not a circus act. Unlike the vast majority of people who work with captive lions, Kevin Richardson doesn't carry a stick or a stun gun and he doesn't control his animals through fear. In this relationship the lions are his equals. And they rarely take orders.
[Kevin Richardson: You're naughty. A naughty cat.]
That means he can break every one of the established rules for interacting with these big cats. He looks them in the eye, gets down to their level, lies down on the ground with them. And people who know lions say you should never, ever, turn your back on one.
But seen from the drone that same incident reveals Kevin's secret. The lioness goes on to do exactly the same thing to the male lion. Richardson is just one of the pride.
Kevin Richardson: They do seem to be attached in a way. Because when you go away they do miss you. And they do lovingly greet you when you come back. They're the only social cat, as we know, a truly social cat. So that's quite important to lions.
Clarissa Ward: What do you think the biggest misconception about lions is?
Kevin Richardson: Biggest misconception is mindless, man-eating killer. In fact, they are really just big, scared animals that are designed to kill, because that's how they've evolved. But the truth be known, they'd rather run away than confront.
Kevin Richardson: There we go. That's not so bad.
We were told we would probably be ok sitting in an open truck. But when a lion weighing more than 400 pounds sidles up for a closer look, that doesn't seem like much of a guarantee.
Kevin Richardson: You're fine, you're fine, you're fine, you're fine, you're fine.
Clarissa Ward: They're just so big.
Kevin Richardson: Yeah. I suppose something that always struck me was the first time I saw a lion, it was a big boy like him. And I was driving to this camp. And he started roaring next to the window. But he looked me in the eyes. I was in quite a low-slung car. And that's a memory I'll never forget, you know, just the power of the roar but also the sheer size. I was like, "Whoa." I didn't realize they were that big.
Clarissa Ward: How many people are there who can do what you do?
Kevin Richardson: There are many people around the world who have amazing relationships with animals and with lions, you know? I'm not going to claim it as, like, something unique to Kevin Richardson.
Clarissa Ward: But would you say you have a gift?
Kevin Richardson: I think the gift really is to maybe explore the boundaries, where most people would be bitten or scratched or, you know, be in such a vulnerable position, where they think, "Well, why would I ever want to put myself in that situation?" And you've got to do it once. You know, it's an amazing thing to suddenly be able to turn your back on a full-grown lion and not worry that he's gonna come and grab you on the back of the neck. So I suppose, from that perspective, it is a bit of -- maybe it's ballsiness. I don't know. And the gift that goes with it, I suppose, is knowing when to leave them alone.
"Whenever you pet a lion cub, you are directly enriching the canned lion hunting industry."
Kevin Richardson started this sanctuary to protect his lions from a multi-million dollar industry that he was once a part of. For years, Richardson worked at The Lion Park, one of dozens of places in South Africa where tourists, many of them Americans, pay top dollar for the privilege of petting lion cubs. The parks breed their lions constantly to ensure a supply of cubs year round, but once the lions reach maturity, they are too dangerous to be near tourists. Places like The Lion Park claim that their older cats are sent to live out the rest of their days in good homes.
Kevin Richardson: 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. The reality is there aren't any.
This is where many of those cubs actually end up: in something called a canned hunt. Where for prices up to 100,000 dollars you can go into an enclosure and shoot a lion. It's entirely legal but online videos from animal rights groups and hunting operations show how brutal it can be. An animal that has been petted and fed by humans since birth makes a pretty easy target. Chris Mercer runs a campaign to try to get canned hunting banned.
Chris Mercer: You put the lion into the enclosure. And then the hunter comes and shoots it and takes it out.
Clarissa Ward: So essentially, it's like shooting fish in a barrel.
Chris Mercer: Oh, there's no skill involved at all. It's not hunting at all. Your canned lion hunter is actually a collector. He's not a hunter.
Clarissa Ward: A collector of trophies?
Chris Mercer: He's a collector of trophies.
Most of the tourists who pay to play with cubs believe that they're helping the animals.
Chris Mercer: Whenever you pet a lion cub, you are directly enriching the canned lion hunting industry. And I hope that anybody watching this program takes this to heart.
Clarissa Ward: What percentage of cubs in these facilities do you think end up in hunting operations?
Chris Mercer: Virtually all the cubs that are petted in this country are going to be shot sooner or later.
Clarissa Ward: How do you know that?
Chris Mercer: Well, we know that there is no other market for adult lions other than the hunting industry. Lions eat meat. Meat's expensive. So every day that 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.
The cub-petting business has spent years trying to hide that fact. We went to The Lion Park where Kevin Richardson started out. His former boss, Rodney Fuhr, claims that parks like his aid conservation by allowing people to interact with the lions, he said, it raises interest in the species.
Clarissa Ward: I can definitely see the appeal. They are beautiful animals.
We asked Fuhr where these lions would end up.
Rodney Fuhr: We try and sell them to credible zoos and parks around the world.
Clarissa Ward: So you would claim right now that no lions that are bred here end up in a hunting facility?
Rodney Fuhr: Yeah. Now, that under oath, you know.
Clarissa Ward: Because we've been given a few names of people who you've allegedly sold lions to, all of whom are associated with hunting operations: Nazir Cajee, Kobus Van Der Westhuizen, Kobus Jakobs, Ben Duminy.
Rodney Fuhr: Yeah, well, let me interrupt you there. Now, that's true. But like I said, we haven't done that for the last couple of years.
"What is canned hunting, you know? And I think it's grossly exaggerated."
Clarissa Ward: Even within the last 18 months, though, we've been told you've sold one batch of 17 lions to Nazir Cajee and another batch of 17 lions to Joanne Hulley, who resells lions to hunt operators. Is that correct or not?
Rodney Fuhr: I'm surprised it's 18 months because I thought it was longer. Like I said, you know, we were doing it. We were selling it to traders and of course zoos as well.
Clarissa Ward: So some of your lions have ended up...
Rodney Fuhr: I thought it was more than 18 months.
Clarissa Ward: But the reality is some of your lions have ended up in hunting operations. And it's very difficult for you to guarantee that they won't continue to end up in these hunting operations.
Rodney Fuhr: Well they won't do it while I'm here. This whole thing about canned hunting. What is canned hunting, you know? And I think it's grossly exaggerated. What are the jobs that we're providing and the hunting industry? Thousands of jobs. This has got to be weighed up against the odd lion that may be sold when he's eight years old, you know. In the wild, he wouldn't probably even live to eight.
[Kevin Richardson: This way. This way.]
For Kevin Richardson, the idea that the lions he had worked with since birth might end up in a canned hunt was too much. So he teamed up with a partner to buy all 26 of them and move them to his sanctuary.
Clarissa Ward: So you couldn't leave without taking your lions with you.
Kevin Richardson: Exactly.
Clarissa Ward: And the logistics of getting 26 lions...
Kevin Richardson: That's been a struggle. Put it that way, yeah.
Wildlife documentary work and a paid volunteer program are covering the bills for now, but lions can live for more than 20 years.
Clarissa Ward: So these lions are almost, like, your adopted family now.
Kevin Richardson: 100 percent.
Clarissa Ward: You're stuck with them.
Kevin Richardson: I am. And some are good and some are bad, you know? You got to take the good with the bad.
Clarissa Ward: Like family.
Kevin Richardson: Exactly. You can't pick and choose. I formed relationships with a bunch of lions, unknowingly at the time what the consequences potentially later on down the line would be. Not really knowing what I was actually getting involved with. 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.