Billed as a film that lets viewers “inside the powerhouse business of big game hunting, breeding and wildlife conservation,” I expected to come out angry and pissed off. Whenever outsiders tackle hunting through a Hollywood lens, it’s usually to target and tarnish the industry’s reputation. However, this project by two photojournalists-turned-filmmakers— Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau—exceeded my expectations. According to Business Insider, the two hadn’t formed strong opinions on trophy hunting so they wanted to explore it through this documentary. While doing initial research for the film, Schwarz—an Israeli native—was displeased to learn about taking a “trophy shot” while Clusiau, a Minnesota native, grew up surrounded by hunters and wasn’t disturbed by the lifestyle.
This film was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival last year and was billed as the next Blackfish (the documentary which unfairly targeted and maligned Sea World’s orca program). However, the film actually fell short of portraying hunting in a negative light— especially in Africa where legal, controlled hunts of lions and elephants have surprisingly contributed to restoration efforts of those species.
The killing of lions, elephants, and other big game is definitely unsettling to most Americans unfamiliar with the wildlife management programs found in Africa. As a newbie to hunting, I personally would never kill any exotic species. I see no purpose in harvesting lions, rhinos, and the like. In fact, most hunters don’t aspire to target big game like those prominently featured in the film. The majority of hunters simply want to the feed their families organic meat or ward off predators who destroy their livelihoods. But hunters understand that hunting some critically endangered wildlife in small, controlled amounts is necessary in foreign countries to help save those species. (Even College Humor released a video called “Why Trophy Hunting Can Help Animals” a few years back to explain how conservation efforts work in Africa.) It sounds twisted, but if you read case studies in Africa, you’ll see why this works there.
The film centers around several notable individuals: South African rhino farmer John Hume, hunting guide / breeder Christo Gomes, Texas rancher Philip Glass, and Zimbabwean wildlife officer/ anti-poacher Chris Moore.
Mr. Hume privately breeds rhinos in South Africa to protect the species. He reportedly has 1,500 rhinos in his possession and has invested $50 million in savings for this project. He’s adamantly anti-poaching and sees his efforts to restore the species as a noble cause. He and his team saw off rhino horns and store them away to deter poachers from seizing the animal who kill them to extract their horns.
Mr. Gomes owns an all-inclusive, luxury safari company called Mabula Pro Safaris in South Africa. Most of his clientele are Americans and his hunting trips average $25,000-$100,000. The film shows him guiding clients and focusing on specialty breeding, of which some animals are hunted by his clients.
Mr. Glass is a focal point of the documentary and a devout Christian whose goal is to hunt all the “Big Five” one day. He is a sheep breeder from Texas. Viewers on social media have painted him as “heartless” and have called for him to be hunted like the animals he pursues. His goal throughout the film is to hunt an elephant.
Mr. Moore tags along Mr. Glass’ hunting excursions and works with locals in Zimbabwe to combat poaching. Most wildlife officers in Africa work closely with government entities and have their anti-poaching efforts subsidized by big game hunters, believe it or not. Mr. Moore works with locals to combat attacks from lions, elephants, and other animals while also working with other officers to help young Zimbabweans avoid treading down the poaching path.
The documentary showed hunting is rooted in conservation
I have no doubt viewers were expecting the filmmakers to soil the good work of hunting organizations with its raw, unfiltered look at trophy hunting in Africa. However, the evidence they presented actually makes the case that hunting promotes conservation —including controversial “trophy” hunts. Seeing Mr. Hume’s tireless efforts to protect the rhinos he raises despite threats from poachers throughout the documentary affirms this very notion. Also seeing Mr. Gomes’ desire to do specialty breeding of some big game animals is shown to come from a place of concern, not blood lust.
Many individuals who despise hunting as a lifestyle — particularly those on the Left or devout animal rights extremists — will be made to reassess their views upon watching this film. They tell us that they are the true conservationists, only to fall short of expectations when they push preservationist policies that incur more harm than good. True sustainability comes with taking a few animals to bolster species as a whole. Many organizations that support hunting also focus on bolstering species’ populations. To see why this is the case, go here.
It highlighted differences between legal hunting and poaching
Conflating poaching with hunting is a trap many folks fall into. I believe the makers of this documentary tried very hard to portray all types of hunting — even the controversial hunting of exotic species — as poaching. However, the film was keen on making the distinction and even suggesting the controlled hunting of these exotic species in Africa has contributed to their restoration efforts. The documentary noted that 1,000 elephants are harvested legally each year, while 30,000 are illegally poached each year. Even New York Magazine’s Yashar Ali — who isn’t a fan of hunting — tweeted the importance of making a distinction between poachers and law-abiding hunters.
It showed hunters aren’t heartless or inconsiderate of the animals they raise or hunt
Many Americans can’t see how private breeding of threatened species or controlled hunting in Africa actually helps save animals there. Throughout the film, we see the three primary figures — the American hunter in Glass, the safari company owner in Gomes, and the private breeder in Hume — showing concern and emotion for the animals they take care of or hunt.
In one moment of the documentary, Gomes gets emotional when asked if he gets attached to the animals, to which he responds “yes.” He then leaves the shot and explains that you can become attached as an animal lover and still support hunting. (It’s a position the majority of hunters boast.)
In another moment when Glass harvests another “Big Five” animal, tears start streaming down his face and he affectionately pets the animal out of a sign of respect. You may find the taking of an exotic species offensive and obscene—it’s odd even for most hunters—but this moment communicates the raw emotion hunters feel when they harvest typical species like deer, bear, elk, turkeys, and birds. It’s sad to take an animal’s life, but it’s appreciated and subsequently valued—not hunted out of blood lust.
It didn’t fully grasp the nuance of “trophy hunting”
When casual observers hear about “trophy hunting,” they generally think of people exclusively hunting exotic species like lions, elephants, rhinos, tigers, water buffalos, and leopards. However, there’s immense debate in the hunting industry over what constitutes a “trophy” hunt: i.e. trophy hunting vs meat hunting. Many professional hunters and enthusiasts say a big buck with 8 or 10 points is a trophy. Some argue any animal you harvest —whether upland, waterfowl, deer, turkey, or bear, for example—can be considered a trophy. A “trophy” is very subjective term depending on whom you ask.
Capitalism fuels private farms and profit for protecting animals is bad
Of course, any documentary endorsed by CNN has to include a stab at free enterprise, naturally. The documentary brought in commentary from members of the Born Free Foundation (think the “Born Free” song by Andy Williams). One of the individuals said private breeding in Africa as a conservation practice is bad because it’s a byproduct of capitalism. These representatives also bemoaned the “if it pays, it stays” model because they see capitalism from a negative lens. (They lost me when they trashed free enterprise.)
Despite my initial hesitation to watch “Trophy, ” I was oddly impressed with its conclusions. As a friend put it, “The filmmakers set out to SHAME the hunting community and quickly realized there would be no wildlife without them.” While it wasn’t a perfect representation of the hunting industry, it gave those of us who believe hunting is conservation a fair shot. Watch it here if you missed it on CNN.