Lions raised in captivity in South Africa are set loose in enclosed areas where hunters, many from the United States, gun them down. The toll: about 1,000 lions each year.
Kevin Richardson hopes a new movie "White Lion," which opens in a few US cities on Friday, will give people second-thoughts about participating in such hunts.
"I just can’t understand how anyone would want to shoot a lion that is clearly confined to a finite space with absolutely no hope in hell of ever escaping the so-called hunter," said Richardson, a self-taught "Lion Whisperer" and first-time film producer.
"Canned lion hunting, in my opinion, is likened to fishing with dynamite in a pond and then calling yourself a fisherman."
"White Lion" is about a rare white lion, who as a cub is cast out of his pride because of his color. He is near starvation when he befriends an older lion who teaches him the ways of the wild. John Kani, a Tony Award-winning actor and playwright, is the storyteller. A young man helps the lion, whose name is Letsatsi, because his Shangaan tribal tradition says a white lion is God’s messenger and must be protected. Tension builds as Gisani becomes a tracker on a game farm where he and a foreign hunter encounter Letsatsi.
Trophy hunting is big business in South Africa, worth $91.2 million a year, according to the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa. Foreign tourists pay up to $40,000 to shoot a lion.
The government promotes hunting as a revenue source and calls it a "sustainable utilization of natural resources." Provincial governments sell permits allowing hunters to kill rhinos, elephants — even giraffes. Hunters killed 1,050 lions in 2008, the last year for which figures are available, according to the South African Predator Breeders Association.
The hunters’ association says 16,394 foreign hunters — more than half from the United States — killed more than 46,000 animals in the year ending September 2007.
Almost all lions hunted under permit in South Africa are bred in captivity. But a new report by Animal Rights Africa says animals that wander out of the huge Kruger National Park into neighboring private reserves have become fair game.
About 3,600 lions were kept in breeding facilities in 2009, to be sold to zoos, safari farms and for hunting on game farms, said Albi Modise, spokesman for South Africa’s Department of Environment.
Animal Rights Africa says trophy hunting is incompatible with South Africa’s push into ecotourism, noting that ad campaigns promoting tourism and game viewing showcase the same species that are offered up to be hunted. The government in 2007 introduced legislation that would reduce the financial incentive to breed lions for the hunt but the Predator Breeders Association challenged the laws and earlier this year won an appeal.
Richardson, the movie’s producer, first befriended a pair of lion cubs at the Lion Park outside Johannesburg 12 years ago, when the cubs were 6 months and he was 23. He began shortening his hours as a therapist in postoperative rehabilitation to play with his new friends. Soon, park owner Rodney Fuhr offered him a part-time job which became full time.
Today, Richardson cares for 39 lions at his 800-hectare (2,000-acre) Kingdom of the White Lion in Broederstroom, an hour and a half drive from Johannesburg, where the film was shot to include tawny gold lions as well as those born white because of a recessive gene.
Lions are nocturnal and spend most of the day sleeping, so filming was limited to a couple of hours in the morning and perhaps another couple in the afternoon — if the cats were willing. Letsatsi was portrayed by several different lions over the four years it took to make the movie. A cuddly cub filmed in the summer of 2006 might be sprouting a mohawk-style tuft of hair the following year, the precursor to a mane.
Richardson said he breaks every rule in the book in handling lions. On a recent morning, the lions welcomed Richardson with rumbling purrs. One shut his eyes in ecstasy and rolled onto his back as Richardson scratched his chin. Another licked Richardson’s hand, the tongue as rough as sandpaper. Too many licks can cause bleeding.
Two 400-pound (180-kilogram) lions wrestled him to the ground and a lioness jumped on his back, covering Richardson for a tense minute. He emerged from a tangle of furry blond limbs, face red. One lion threw a casual paw on Richardson’s shoulder.
"Ugh, no claws you naughty boy!" he admonished, slapping away a paw larger than his face.
He’s been attacked by his lions twice. Once during filming, a lion named Thor grabbed Richardson’s arm and pinned him against the cage holding the camera crews, who looked on terrified and unable to help.
"I thought: There goes my arm, and it’s my own fault. I was provoking him to get a fight sequence that we needed," Richardson said. The lion stared him in the eyes for what seemed five minutes but couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, before releasing him, he recalled.
"Lions are 99 percent chill and 1 percent lethal," Richardson said.