“That’s a textbook shot!”
A proud father beams as his young son shoots and kills his first buck with a bullet between the eyes.
We watch as the herd of does and fawns flee. We grimace as the young boy holds up the head of the dead buck whilst his beaming father takes photographs of the hunter and the hunted.
I’m at screening of Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz’s new documentary Trophy and this opening scene sets the tone for the film; intense, confronting, and thought-provoking.
I knew Trophy would be a tough watch (it has been hailed as “The New Blackfish“, after all) as it explores the commodification of wild animals; in particular, trophy hunting and the rhino horn trade. Going in, I had a very strong stance against both issues but perhaps things are not quite as black and white as they seem.
Trophy explores the true cost of conservation, the moral dilemmas involved in keeping a species from extinction, and the effects (good and bad) of trophy hunting and poaching on rural African communities.
Since 1970, the world has lost over 60% of all wild animals. Trophy looks at why and how this has happened and what we can do to prevent further loss or even reverse the statistics.
One of the film’s main subjects (and star of the opening scene) is Texan sheep breeder Philip Glass. He’s your textbook American trophy hunter, proud to be undertaking his “god-given right” to shoot and kill. We follow his pursuit to hunt Africa’s “Big Five” – buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, and rhino.
Glass insists that he is an animal lover. and that not only is he contributing funds to conservation efforts but that he’s honouring the animals’ spirits by killing them.
At one point, he pets the lion he just shot and starts to tear up. Remorse for killing such a majestic animal, perhaps? Of course not. It’s because his father would be proud.
It’s impossible for me to like Glass, a man who delights in killing, believes trophy hunting is his “right as an American citizen” (despite the fact he’s shooting animals in Zimbabwe) and says things like, “anybody who believes in evolution is a complete fool.” However, I think Clusiau and Schwarz did a great job in finding someone who epitomises the trophy hunting lifestyle and beliefs of those involved, whether or not I agree with him.
In stark contract to Glass, the film’s other main subject is South African John Hume, owner of the world’s largest rhino-breeding operation. Over the past 100 years, the population of the species has plummeted from 500 000 to under 30 000. Hume wants to help reverse those numbers and has invested his life savings in the cause.
Sounds great, right? Well, here’s where the issue gets a bit more complicated and my conviction started to waver. Hume believes that the best way to help save rhinos from extinction is to reverse the South African government’s moratorium on the sale of rhino horn.
Since the ban on rhino horn sales was put in place, poaching has skyrocketed. Rhino horn is sold on the black market in Vietnam and China due to its supposed (yet entirely unproven) medicinal properties. Due to their rarity, they are more valuable by weight than gold or heroin.
To combat poaching, Hume saws off his rhinos’ horns under sedation every two years. Sadly, even this doesn’t always work. In one scene, we watch a distressed baby rhino actually crying and running around in circles unsure what to do with himself. His mother lays dead, having been shot and mutilated by poachers then left to rot. It’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film.
Hume wants to continue breeding his 1200 plus rhinos and sell their horns legally to help prevent such situations.
“Give me one animal that’s gone extinct while farmers were breeding it and making money out of it. There’s not one”, he tells the camera passionately. He may be right but if farming is the only way to save an animal, can we still consider it “wild”?
The age-old mantra “If it pays, it stays” is one echoed by the ranchers who breed big game animals for “canned hunting”. Individual animals are auctioned off at events like the Safari Club convention in Las Vegas (the largest hunting convention in the world), where wealthy North Americans (Americans and Canadians make up 70% of game hunters in Africa) like Glass, bid upwards of $50 000 per animal for a guaranteed kill.
Again, most of them claim to be “animal lovers” and state that their money goes back into local communities and the conservation of endangered species.
It’s a claim that I just can’t get on board with. Especially not when we’re talking about regions well-known for government corruption. How much money is actually going back to the locals? The stark contrast between the rich white folk hunting the animals, and the black locals scavenging remains of a kill and living in basic huts is painfully evident throughout the whole film.
In terms of conservation, aren’t these hunters just paying to “save” animals so that other rich, white tourists can go and shoot them in these safari parks?
It’s particularly hard to take conservation claims seriously when there are visitors of the Safari Club convention who say things like, “Crocodiles are really mean. Besides that, I want a pair of boots.”
Crocodiles may be “mean”. Or perhaps they are just wild animals who don’t like being lassoed, dragged from a man-made lake, and tied shut around their jaws so they can be shot at close range by a “hunter” drinking beer and shouting, “Yeah, Motherfucker!”. (That one wasn’t Glass. Despite my dislike of him, he at least appears to exhibit a sense of respect towards the animals he kills.)
One of the most morally challenging stories in the film was that of Zimbabwean Chris Moore, a wildlife officer and anti-poacher. We follow him as he visits local villagers whose crops have been trampled by elephants or whose herd of cattle have been killed by a lion. Due to anti-poaching laws, the locals cannot shoot the animals to protect their assets or their families.
When their livelihoods are destroyed, many turn to poaching to make a living as they see no other option for survival. In one disturbing scene, we see Moore and his team ransack the home of a suspected poacher in the middle of the night. The suspect is not home but his terrified family members cower in corners, begging for their lives.
Whether or not the aggressive actions and threats are just for show, it’s a truly disturbing scene providing insight into the stark realities of the effects that hunting laws and the black market trade have on poorer communities.
Ironically, Moore admits that part of his job involves saving animals from poaching so that they can be killed by hunters instead.
On occasion Moore has to shoot animals in order to save the lives or livelihoods of locals, not a part of his job that he enjoys. In an emotional interview, he reflects that he can’t imagine why anyone would choose to shoot these animals, let alone pay to do it.
With much of the film shot on location in Africa, there is some stunning cinematography throughout. Unfortunately, this is often tied in with difficult-to-watch scenes of animal slaughter.
So what are my final thoughts? Please see this film.
Yes, it’s harrowing and difficult to watch at (a lot of) times but it’s such an important story told in a subjective and honest manner. The only thing I think it’s missing is some insight into the emergence of ecotourism in the same regions and how that revenue compares to funding from the hunting tourism industry.
I am opposed to all forms of hunting in modern society (where it’s not imperative for survival). However, if you are hunting an animal that you will take home and consume, the same way you would consume an animal from a butcher, that’s one thing. But when you’re hunting “canned”, often endangered animals merely for the trophy and your photo with a cleaned up, propped up animal carcass then I just don’t get it.
Surely trophy hunting and legalising rhino horns sales are not the answer in battling extinction. But what is? Who is in the right here?
Those are questions that the film poses but never actually answers; it seems we’ve just not worked it out yet.
Trophy will be in selected cinemas and available on digital download from 17th November 2017.