If there’s one thing that everyone in Trophy agrees upon – or at least claims to – it’s that the shocking decline in African wildlife, be it rhinos (from 500,000 in 1900 to less than 30,000 today), elephants (from 10,000,000 in 1900 to 350,000 in 2015), lions (less than 20,000 left in the wild) or others, is an urgent issue which warrants an immediate response, as the prospect of genuine extinction for such iconic animals draws nearer and nearer. On everything else, they seem to completely disagree.
This fly-on-the-wall documentary follows a few key characters as they strive to undertake their own particular form of wildlife conservation. What is remarkable is how wide-ranged and often entirely opposing their methods are. There is John Hume, a South African rhino breeder. Christo Homes, a hunting outfitter. Craig Packer, a scientific ecologist. Philip Glass, a trophy hunter. Chris Moore, a Zimbabwean anti-poaching officer. Joe Hosmer, the president of Safari Club International (SCI). Will Travers, the Born Free CEO. These talking heads and others each try to impress upon us, the viewer, why their method of conservation is the best way forward, while disparaging the views of the rest.
Hume is one central character who is keen to stress his case, even if it involves shouting down his friends. ‘Give me one animal that’s gone extinct while farmers were breeding it and making money out of it? There’s not one,’ he argues. His 1,400-strong rhino farm sees the animals de-horned every two years to make the animals less desirable to prospective poachers, while simultaneously stockpiling millions of dollars worth of rhino horn (which South African law bans the sale of). ‘If he had an opinion to give to you,’ continues Hume, indicating a large rhino whose horns have just been removed, ‘he would say I’m very happy to sacrifice my horn in order to save my life.’ His deep emotional response to later finding a harrowing rhino massacre, the landscape strewn with their mutilated bodies, certainly suggests – on the face of it – that this is a man who genuinely cares for his animals and wishes to use their commercial potential to save the species from extinction. But is it that simple?
Other proponents of the ‘if it pays, it stays’ model make a far weaker case. At the SCI conference in Las Vegas, President Hosmer’s description of how a $50,000 auction bid to shoot dead a bull elephant, for example, will channel funds into wildlife conservation, leaves more than a bad taste in the mouth, especially with the gun-wielding white-faced grins of the many American hunters bidding for the right to go to Africa and start killing on display.
One such hunter is sheep farmer Philip Glass, from Water Valley, Texas. His dream is to kill each of the ‘big five’ – lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhino – and he’s willing to pay big money to make it happen. In Namibia, tracking these expensive animals, the anticipation and adrenaline stirs up many emotions, not just those of the Texan hunter. ‘As trophy hunters, we just want the chance to hunt that animal just one time. We really want just one,’ he blubs, a message that fails to be anything other than confusingly selfish and incoherent.
Glass doesn’t seem to be a bad person, just deluded and lost. His strong religious beliefs entitle him – he believes – to not only total dominion over the animal kingdom, but to even utterly reject the concept of evolution. His ability to listen to the deep mournful dying groans of a shot elephant who knows this is the end – to stand there and still feel no regret for what he’s just done – is truly extraordinary, and even quite scary (the obligatory posing for victory photos afterwards might even make you feel sick).
It’s important to distinguish between the subject’s many different silos in a film such as this. Trophy hunting is one, while so-called ‘canned’ hunting, where animals are bred purely to be killed by wealthy hunters, is another. The rhino farming question is different, especially, as Hume is keen to stress, since the animals don’t need to be killed in order to be farmed (unlike most domestic livestock). None of these issues are entirely straightforward, but it’s certainly important to be able to separate them out, as they each present challenges and conundrums that are unique unto themselves. Instead, Trophy chooses to constantly thread them together, a style which blurs the many lines, making it harder for an audience to break them down and fully understand the various arguments being presented.
Craig Packer, experienced conservationist, is perhaps best placed to take the pragmatic, non-idealogical view on these many subjects. While he criticises the fixation on individual animals of many welfare groups, which he feels isn’t helpful in the long run, he is keen to stress the failure of the trophy hunting model to provide the economic benefits needed for conservation in the vast majority of cases where it is undertaken. Rhino farming, however, he almost embraces, hailing South Africa’s ‘success’ in using game ranching to accidentally almost restore the country’s ecosystem.
This is very much at odds with Will Travers’ argument, that nature is not something we can lock up and harvest to make profit off Asia’s peculiar thirst for ivory and other wildlife products. Certainly, briefly allowing a legal market for ivory a decade ago opened the doors to a huge escalation in elephant poaching. Would a legal rhino horn market do the same today? The film gives no concrete information upon which to make a judgement.
There is an immense quantity of uncomfortable viewing in Trophy, and the majority of people will likely find it quite hard going. Clusiau and Schwarz have not held back from showing the sheer volume of death these hunters can produce. Ultimately, unlike more campaign-driven documentaries such as Blackfish, the viewer is left to make up their own mind, to filter the many perspectives and opinions they’ve been presented with to form whatever conclusion they feel most comfortable with. While such perceived neutrality might appear positive on the face of it, a dearth of clear factual information – which would likely help clarify the debate – unfortunately undermines this strategy. While many viewers will realise how obviously bogus the claims of some contributors really are, the possibility that others will believe them is a concern, and a shame given the potential positive legacy of the film.
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