Published on March 30th, 2017 | by Joakim Lindgaard Molnes


The Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary is a safe haven for large predators like lions and hyeenas. After watching his show on Animal Planet, I decided to travel to South Africa to volunteer and work with these beautiful animals.

Instagram: @joakimmolnes

Does the name Kevin Richardson ring any bells? If «I Want It That Way» pops up in your head your slightly off track as I’m not talking about the former Backstreet Boys member, but a man commonly referred to as “the lion whisperer”. Sound familiar? If you still don’t know who I’m talking about you are left with two options. Option one: stop reading and flip to the next page (the article will probably on the next page as well). Option two: sit back and relax and I’ll tell you about a life-changing adventure. The article is actually not about Kevin himself, but about his wildlife sanctuary and the important work they do in the heart of South Africa.

After graduating from the University of Bergen with a bachelor degree in biology in June 2015, I decided I really, really deserved a gap year. During my gap year I had this revelation. I wanted to make a difference for someone, somewhere. Since I’m what is considered «a crazy animal lover», and the fact that I already knew a lot about Kevin and his amazing work regarding big predator conservation in Africa, the picking was rather easy. So I set of on my big adventure.

I landed in Johannesburg February 29th (yup! 29th… not 28th!). After collecting my bag at the baggage claim I had to buy the incredibly stupid South African power adapter, and then finally locate a man called Albert accompanied by a fellow volunteer called Anna. Easier said than done (buying the power adaptor).

Well, eventually we got into the car and started the two hour drive towards the sanctuary. Everything went silky smooth until we hit the dust road, 10 km away from the sanctuary. You see, Albert don’t like getting his car dirty (either on the outside nor on the inside) meaning that turning on air condition or open a single window is out of the question (read: incineration). I think we averaged 10km/h the last hour. But who cares, I had all the time in the world, and I got to soak in the African bush for the first time. Lets just say it, it´s pure magic!

The Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary is situated northeast of Johannesburg, in Welgedacht Private Game reserve. The Sanctuary is home to 33 lions, 18 spotted hyenas, 2 striped hyenas and 4 black leopards, which are all rescues from other parks in South Africa, or rescued from foul tourist attractions overseas. As sited directly from the sanctuary´s website, their mission is; to provide a self-sustaining African carnivore sanctuary for the purposes of wild species preservation through education, awareness and funding, especially pertaining to the rapid decline of large carnivores in Africa due to habitat loss, human-predator conflict, unscrupulous hunting, disease and their illegal trade.

Nikita the black leopard chilling in the shadows.

The sanctuary works towards decreasing the number of large carnivores kept in captivity, also increasing the awareness of canned hunting, and how cub petting offered by parks throughout Africa is a direct link to this terrible and disturbing industry.

The sanctuary consists of 13 one hectare enclosures and one 35 hectare enclosure, which helps ensure that the animals get to live as good lives in captivity as possible. The animals are moved between different enclosures regularly to ensure stimulation and enrichment in form of new smells and surroundings every two to three weeks. Although the animals spend most of their time in the enclosures, the staff also regularly takes them for walks in the 1300 ha game reserve in which the sanctuary is located. These walks give the animals the opportunity to hunt and be free on a regular basis, which again is important when it comes to giving them rich and meaningful lives.

Have you or any of your friends ever been to a park in Africa where petting lion cubs and walking juvenile lions at sun-setters is part of your daily routine? If you have, I’m sure you were convinced that what you did was part of a conservation programme aiming to increase the wild population of lions throughout the African continent.

Volunteers at all ages from all over the world come to parks like this in good belief that they’re contributing to something good. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case for parks like this, and people are being fooled to believe that what they do is for conservation purposes. Naivety and lack of education are the two primary driving forces of this industry, and the parks never show what’s actually going on behind the curtains.

Each year, hundreds, if not thousands of lions are born in parks like this. What’s particularly weird is that only a handful of people really asks questions about what happens to the lions when they become too big and dangerous for the general public to interact with them. Where are they sent? The sad and disturbing truth is that most of them are being sold to farms and ultimately shot by the highest bidder. And this my friend, is the terrible and disturbing process known as “canned hunting”, and it´s something these parks like to keep very quiet about.

Another problem with lions born in parks like this is that they are usually subjects to massive inbreeding and malnutrition. Genetic diversity within the parks is more or less absent. As a figure of speech, this means that the gene pool used to breed lions basically is the size of a small puddle exposed to the ruthless South African sun on a warm day.

“The sad and disturbing truth is that most of the are being sold to farms and ultimately shot by the highest bidder”

The problem with inbred lions is not only that many of them are born with major deformities and anomalies, but they are also genetically unsuited for release into wild populations, meaning that their future as wild roaming lions are already doomed before they are even born.

The lions in the sanctuary know how to stick together.

The cubs are also given really nutrient deficient diets, slowing down growth rate, making it possible for people to interact with them longer. Malnutrition of cubs will also result in them developing life threatening deformities if not treated correctly. To give you an example of how devestating malnutrition can be I want to tell you about the brothers George and Yame, who was rescued from Spain as cubs after being malnutritioned their whole life so that tourists could take pictures with him. When Kevin heard about the two lions he decided to rescue them. When the brothers arrived at the sanctuary, George had severe osteoporosis, multiple bone fractures, and was almost blind due to the poor diet he had being given since birth. Today, both George and Yame are doing great at the sanctuary. George has still got problems with his hind legs and will always be a reminder of the rough start the two brothers had in life.

“When you think about it, the bush is actually much more civilised than what we humans call society”

The sanctuary has a volunteer programme that gives people the opportunity to get a hands-on experience when it comes to how it is to work at and run a wildlife sanctuary. The sanctuary only accepts twelve volunteers simultaneously, making the experience very intimate and personal. You will get to know the staff and your fellow volunteers very well during your stay, and I can assure you that you will make friends for life. As a volunteer you will get to participate in all duties involved in maintaining a predator sanctuary, including everything from preparing meet for the animals, feeding the animals, cleaning enclosures, general maintenance, and so much more.

Volunteering at a sanctuary like this is extremely rewarding work, and does not only facilitate personal growth and development, but also educates you about conservation and love for both people and animals. To watch the extremely hard work and dedication of the staff makes me really believe in humanity again! I can assure you that this place will get a very special place in your heart if you give it a go!

I hope you found my story interesting and have a better understanding of how important education about canned hunting and conservation really is. My time at the sanctuary was probably the most rewarding and eye-opening experience I have ever had in my entire life. Time flies when you are surrounded by great people and you do something you love. Three weeks at the sanctuary felt like three days, and leaving the place was probably one of the most emotional experiences of my life.

The night before my departure, I was sitting around the bonfire with one of the rangers at the sanctuary. As I was trying to soak in the every last drop of the African bush, the ranger said something to me that I´ll never forget. «When you think about it, the bush is actually much more civilised than what we humans call society. Humans treat the planet like its something they own, resulting in conflicts and wars. Animals on the other hand, respect their place in the ecosystem and everything that inhabits it. I always look forward getting back to society after spending time in one of the big cities».

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