How can wildlife conservationists best work to save endangered wildlife like the rhinos, lions and elephants of Africa?
This question sits at the heart of Trophy, a movie directed by Shaul Schwartz and co-directed by Christina Clusiau that opens in New York on Friday and more widely at the end of the month (see the trailer here).
With stunning and often startling cinematography, in places ranging from South Africa and Zimbabwe to Las Vegas convention centers, Trophy presents diverse viewpoints about the relationship between wildlife conservation and the commodification of big-game animals. The "if it pays it stays" model takes center stage: Should the sale of horns sawed off from farmed rhinos be legal? Should the practice of rich clients paying tens of thousands of dollars to hunt animals like Cecil the lion — who, in the wake of his trophy-killing by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer in 2015, ignited global outrage against the canned-hunting industry — be seen as the answer to saving endangered species?
Watching the film, I felt sadness, anger and disgust as continual callousness to animals played out.
There are many difficult scenes.
A woman at a Safari Club International convention in Las Vegas dreams aloud about a future hunt: "Crocodiles are really mean. I don't feel bad about killing one of those. Besides I want a pair of boots. And a purse. And a wallet. And a belt."
A crocodile in South Africa is dragged forcefully from the water and brought close up to a trophy-hunter, who shoots and kills the animal then yells a profanity.
Trophy-hunters in Zimbabwe celebrate gleefully after one shoots an African elephant, even as the first shot turns out not to be the kill shot. They stand and observe as the young male elephant dies slowly.
Some relief comes in the parts of the movie focused on a South African rhino breeder named John Hume, who owns 1,500 rhinoceroses on his private farm.
It's evident that Hume loves them, even as he obviously is in business to make money. After first sedating the rhinos, a vet team on the farm saws off the horns in an attempt to reduce the poaching risk. (Poachers nonetheless do slip onto the farm at times, as gruesome scenes attest.)
We watch as Hume publicly debates Born Free Foundation's CEO Will Travers in London. Travers decries Hume's "if it pays it stays" model: Enclosing rhinos on private farms and hoping to sell their horns legally to subsidize their breeding. (At the time of filming, such sales were not legal in South Africa).
This model, Hume insists, is "the recipe" for saving the rhino and he insists, too, that he has spent millions of his own dollars to support it.
On that model of wildlife conservation, Travers responds, nature would become "contained, confined, commercialized and counterfeit." Elephants would have to pay their way to live through sales of ivory and lions through the kind of canned hunts that killed Cecil and that we see in the film.
Sales of rhino horn are now legal in South Africa. Just last month, a three-day event resulted in what has been called by the Guardian "subdued sales."
I could see that Hume believes he is doing his best to save rhinos. I don't believe he is entirely motivated by profit, and he's clearly intending no cruelty to animals. To that extent, I think Trophy accomplished what Schwartz and Clusiau told me they most hope will happen with their film:
"We believe that the truth does not lie on just one side, and that if we want to protect wildlife, we will all have to pitch in. Like many polarizing subjects it seems that there are two camps that are so busy screaming, bullying, and insulting each other they completely fail to listen to one another. Trophy aims to create a dialogue and make people from both sides of the argument dare put down their preconceived notions and challenge themselves to think differently by listening to those on the other side of the issue."
Here is our email dialogue, edited for length:
The Hollywood Reporter review of Trophy, written after its debut at Sundance earlier this year, included this statement: "Trophy isn't as good at drawing moral conclusions as it is at laying out the difficult issues around hunting, conservationism and the trade in animal parts." My take, on the contrary, was that you, the filmmakers, offered your moral conclusions with great heart and clarity via the numerous images, relentlessly coming at the viewer again and again, of hunted animals who suffer at the hands of trophy hunters. Or are my own biases at work here?
We came to the subject being against trophy hunting, particularly Shaul. In fact, in the early stages of the film, we thought that we would gain access to the hunting community and shame them. Then we were introduced to the concept of putting economic value on animals and how that can help conserve. Doubtful at first, we saw this concept play out in hunting and breeding and we started to take it seriously. Conservation requires money, and the economic model of "if it pays it stays" is very interesting and we didn't think we should just wave it off.
It would have been really easy to make a film that mocks the hunters and trashes this industry as a whole, but it would have been, quite frankly, irresponsible. Ultimately, we decided to mainly portray those who believe in the "if it pays it stays" model. However, by giving them a voice we certainly didn't give them a blank check. We feel we treated them fairly and showed both sides of the argument. To your question, yes, we do show some of the truly hard to swallow realities that come with trophy hunting. For example, hunters like to take "clean" trophy pictures — they will carefully wash of the blood, clean the animal and take a surreal image that shows them posing next to almost what looks like a sleeping animal.
What is the role of emotion in the film, as you awaken viewers to trophy-hunting practices and the hunters' various claims regarding their supposed good for conservation?
The role of emotion in this film was huge. On one hand, we wanted to explain the conservation logic behind hunting, but we also wanted to conflict it with the uncomfortable reality of what that looks like. The film provokes thinking and shows that the answers to conserving wildlife are complicated and may challenge your preconceived assumptions, creating a highly emotional battle of the "heart and mind."
Conservation of wildlife is expensive, and different economic models have proven helpful, including hunting. "It sounds pretty weird — we are fighting to save something so that someone else can kill it," says Chris Moore [in the film], an anti-poacher in Zimbabwe that puts his life at risk to save wildlife. "We get a daily rate when hunters come to hunt here, and that really subsidizes the money I have to run my anti-poaching team." This is a perfect example to what we, the filming team, referred to as the endless mindf--- of this subject.
My own conclusion after watching the film? The "if it pays it stays" model (notice the language of commodification with "it" used for an animal) cannot be separated from the glorification of killing in trophy-hunting and the attendant issues of cruelty I have outlined. I can't support a notion that leaders of the trophy-hunting industry or the rich clients who celebrate animal death through that industry deserve an equal hearing.
And this is my conclusion, too: Trophy couldn't be more timely or more important to watch on the subject of wildlife conservation — even as it vexes our minds and assails our hearts. We can't afford to turn our gaze away.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape