It won’t surprise anyone to know that I believe in the power of documentaries to tell a story that needs to be told, to illuminate, to change minds, and to inspire people to take action. Not every documentary sets out to do that, or achieves that. But I love the fact that there are so many creators out there working to use the medium to make the world a better place. As I have learned, it is perhaps the most effective medium for our visual, streaming, social media age (though it still starts with the written word!).
One new documentary that definitely illuminates, though it doesn’t come up with any easy answers (which makes it very honest) is Trophy, which opens in theaters September 8. In the words of the producers:
Trophy is a startling exploration of the evolving relationship between big-game hunting and wildlife conservation that will leave you debating what is right, what is wrong and what is necessary in order to save the great species of the world from extinction.
I do think the film delivers on this promise, and it beautifully conveys the complexity of the terrible choices before us as poachers and land changes relentlessly diminish the planet’s extraordinary bounty of beautiful beings. I came away devastated by the fact that the human relationship with the wild is so broken that we are even forced to consider whether canned big-game hunting–no matter how odious and self-serving the hunters are–or rhino horn farming, might really be beneficial to the future of lions, elephants and other big game.
The case for rhino horn farming (horns are harvested from the rhinos every few years in a relatively painless way) appears reasonably solid to me–no doubt aided by the passion and determination of the sympathetic rhino breeder featured in Trophy. A legal, sustainable international rhino horn trade would arguably have an impact on reducing rhino poaching, and that would save rhino lives because farming horn involves breeding and nurturing the lives of the animals while poaching means brutally killing the animals.
However, the case for high-value, canned, big-game hunts is harder to stomach. The hunters, their families, and the community around them are egotistical, crass, and thoroughly repulsive (as they cynically quote the bible, giggle their way through hunts, and then shed tears over the beauty of the animal they have just put a high-powered bullet through at virtually no risk to themselves). And it is abundantly clear that they don’t really care about conservation beyond the idea that it means sustaining species that they want to be able to add to their trophy walls.
Still, however much we dislike them (my son and I took to referring to Philip Glass, the hunter who is most featured, as “the dickhead”), it is not as easy to dismiss the fact that at least some of their dollars do in fact help fund anti-poaching and conservation efforts. That does not just come from their mouths, but from the mouth of a very thoughtful, very conflicted, anti-poaching unit leader in Zimbabwe. The choices are indeed hard, and hard to contemplate. But they are the choices a few centuries of industrialization, free market capitalism, rampant materialism, rampant population growth, and a thorough disregard for the natural world have left us with.
One very important policy goal that is simple to understand and simple to get behind, which sets the context for this crisis, is poverty. Trophy does not directly address the role of poverty in the ongoing extinction crisis, but it hints at it when it takes us into a poaching family’s destitute dwelling. It is very easy for anyone who is comfortable and well-fed to rail against the killing of wildlife and the assaults of humanity against the natural world (and I am describing myself, too!). But it seems clear to me, at least, that none of us will get very far in addressing the difficult and depressing problems raised by Trophy unless we, and the developed world as a whole, are prepared to address the underlying problem of extreme income inequality. It is poverty and desperation, and the need to feed one’s family, that often drives a young man into poaching. Or a farmer to kill a lion. Addressing that problem will take a quantum shift in how the wealthy nations of the world view our responsibilities to the global community and its impoverished nations, and a reassessment of what we are willing to sacrifice to achieve the conservation goals we all care so much about. (Along with a quantum shift in the moral consideration we give nonhuman species).
Millions of dollars from fat cat hunters from Texas may help buy some anti-poaching gear, or help preserve a slice of habitat. But it is a drop in the bucket compared to the income flows it would take to really solve the ongoing crisis of the relentless destruction of the great species and the environments they need to thrive.
I hope someone is making a documentary about that.