And you thought some of your friends were wild animals.
In a viral video that was posted to YouTube on October 2, zoologist Kevin Richardson brazenly stands in the African savannah on a recent morning, calls out, and then stands calmly as two adult lions come running up and lovingly wrap their enormous paws around his head and body. Incredibly, the trio then cuddles in the high grass, as Richardson ruffles their fur and scratches their foreheads.
Since 1999, Richardson, a self-taught animal behaviorist, has worked intimately with lions on a 1,600-acre reserve in South Africa. He’s earned the nickname ‘Lion Whisperer,’ because he quickly gained the confidence and affection of the entire untamed pride.
“I know they could kill me in a second, but that doesn’t bother me,” Richardson told Sky News in 2009. “If I came back to life, I would do it all again.”
Richardson isn’t willfully taking his life into his own hands—or a lion’s paws, as it were—simply for thrill’s sake, either.
All of his big cat play dates—here, here, as well as White Lion, a 2010 documentary that tracks two rare white lions from birth to adulthood—have a conservationist end-game: Richardson hopes that the media attention will raise public awareness on the need to protect and conserve Africa’s big cats.
And, these days, it’s not easy being the proverbial king of the jungle. In the 1950s, the global lion population was 200,000, according to Panthera, a conservationist organization devoted to big cats. Today, however, there may be as few as 20,000 lions left. Threats include habitat loss; scarcity of wild prey because of overhunting by humans; and retaliatory persecution by herders and farmers after lions kill their livestock. Indeed, if the situation doesn’t change dramatically, lions could be extinct in the wild within 10 to 20 years.
“We don't want a situation whereby we must tell our children's children about lions as if they were dodo birds,” Richardson told Yahoo in 2010.