A documentary film examining the complicated world of African big-game hunting and wildlife conservation made its television debut Jan. 14. The film, “Trophy,” explains how hunting can be a path toward species salvation, but also lays naked the ugliness of some practices and likely repulsed many non-hunters.
Let’s get the ugly out of the way.
Any Montanan familiar with our tradition of ethical, fair-chase hunting would be disgusted when an unidentified hunter — shooter is more accurate — empties his rifle into a crocodile lounging in a pond. The hapless croc was relocated from a breeding facility just before the “hunt.”
After the croc is roped from the pond, the shooter sets down his beer long enough to finish the job with a shot to the head, then pumps his fist and blurts “Oh yeah, (expletive)!” with the solemn reverence of a frat boy who just defeated his main bro in an epic beer pong battle.
“It’s not sport; it’s just killing,” said lion biologist Craig Packer of these increasingly popular canned hunts. Wealthy hunters may pay for a three-week safari, he explains, but if they kill everything on their list in three days, they’re back on an airplane home. Farm-raised game makes it possible.
The film’s most disturbing scene follows Texas sheep rancher Phillip Glass as he kills a young elephant. Glass is out to bag Africa’s Big Five: buffalo, rhino, lion, leopard and elephant. After shooting the beast, Glass boasts he “got it running away.” The elephant’s gruesome death fills an agonizing two-and-half minutes of screen time, despite Glass shooting the dying animal in the chest as its moans resonate across the dry African bush.
Later, after killing a lion, Glass justifies his Big Five pursuit by explaining that the Bible says we have dominion over animals.
A religious scholar I’m not, but I suspect any deity worthy of worship might respond in this way: “If it’s eternal salvation you seek, keep me on speed dial. But if you just want a convenient rationalization for a camo-clad vanity project, you’re on your own.”
There were 10 million elephants in 1900. By 1979, that number was 1.3 million. In 2015, there were 350,000 elephants left, with 30,000 poached annually.
More sympathetic is rhino rancher John Hume and his mission to save these endangered beasts by sawing off their horns. The horns grow back, but in the meantime the animals are less attractive to poachers. Hume argues that selling the horns can fund the elaborate security measures he employs to protect his 1,200 rhinos.
It’s the “recipe” for saving them, he pleads. Others argue a better solution is teaching the mostly Asian consumers of rhino horn that it has no medicinal value. But Hume’s son, a reluctant heir to the rhino empire, says rhino horn believers are plentiful worldwide so reeducation is likely a long-term project.
Packer explains how big-game hunting has led wildlife restoration in South Africa, where there are more lions today than 100 years ago. In the last two decades, private landowners determined they could make more money raising wildlife for hunters than they could raising cattle. First the focus was on rare antelope such as sable and roan. Then the ranchers realized the potential profit if they could offer a shot at Big Five.
“Now you’ve actually got a restored ecosystem,” Packer said.
“Trophy” helps explain the role hunting plays in the conservation of African wildlife. Still, I worry that for the uninitiated, the contrast between conservationist hunter and slob shooter may seem a distinction without a difference.