DINOKENG GAME RESERVE, South Africa — The male lion brushes through the tall grass and strides into a clearing in a South African wildlife sanctuary. A man beckons the big cat with purring sounds. The lion, Bayetsi, responds with a gentle growl and caresses Kevin Richardson, popularly known as the "lion whisperer," with its mane.
Richardson hopes his hands-on stunts with lions will highlight the plight of the African predator, whose numbers have dwindled. It also thrusts him into a sensitive debate about human interaction with lions; some conservationists say Richardson's message is sound and sincere, but note the limits of what he can do to address big-picture problems facing the vulnerable species.
The number of lions in the wild in Africa has dropped by more than 40 percent to about 20,000 in the past two decades, according to some estimates.
Made for viral viewing on social media, the spectacle of Richardson lounging and cavorting with lions as though they were house pets might resemble a circus act in the African bush. But he uses the attention to condemn the South African industry in which customers kill captive-bred lions in relatively confined areas.
He and other critics describe that practice as "canned hunting" and also condemn the tourist draw of lion cub petting in special enclosures, saying those same animals would not be able to survive in the wild and often get cycled into the "trophy" industry to be shot for a price.
"Today's lion cub becomes tomorrow's trophy and the unsuspecting tourists have blood on their hands," said Richardson, who once worked at a tourist park that offered lion cub-petting. The tourists, he said, "have been hoodwinked into believing that their contribution of funds is going into lion conservation."
One South African operation, the Lion and Safari Park, said it stopped lion cub petting but had to resume it because of a "dramatic and unexpected" drop in visitors and tour operators who sought out cub petting elsewhere. It said it keeps its lions until they die of natural causes or donates them to "reputable" zoos and parks, and does not sell its lions to hunters.
Today, 42-year-old Richardson, who is married and has two children, manages a wildlife area with 31 lions within the Dinokeng reserve north of South Africa's capital, Pretoria. Many of the lions, which were captive-bred and cannot be released into the wild, were rescued from being transferred to operations that would let customers shoot them, he said.
Richardson said he does not breed lions and that those on his 1,300-hectare (3,200-acre) property feed on donated carcasses of cattle and antelope.
"I have been accepted as part of the pride," said Richardson, scratching the lion Bayetsi's chin. "But I have to be very careful. They are large animals and are very good at telling you how they feel."
The lions have scratched and bitten Richardson over the years, but perhaps more hurtful to him has been the criticism he has faced after being filmed wrestling with his lions or roaring with them.
Richardson's website, which offers merchandise including T-shirts, key chains and calendars, says he seeks to promote wildlife preservation through "education, awareness and funding."
Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, a conservation group, commended Richardson for his passion and "authentic" concern for lions, saying: "His messaging, for what he has and what he can do, is good."
But Hunter emphasized the broader conservation needs of the lion, including efforts to protect habitats and address poaching, in which antelopes and other potential prey for lions end up in the bushmeat trade, and lions get trapped in snares laid down indiscriminately.
A relatively recent concern is demand in some Asian countries for lion bones used in traditional medicine, and the possibility that poachers are increasingly targeting lions to meet that demand. Currently, South Africa allows the legal, annual export of bones from hundreds of captive-bred lions to China and Southeast Asia.
Richardson spoke of his intimacy with the animals.
"The relationships I have with them are purely to give them a better quality of life in a captive situation," he said. "I will look after them as long as I can."
Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia in Johannesburg contributed to this report.