Docs Worth Seeing: Trophy

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.

Killing Lions To Save Lions

That’s the objectionable paradox that exists in Tanzania, where human pressures are reducing lion numbers but American big game hunters are helping fund protection and conservation.

This is an issue because US Fish & Wildlife is considering classifying African lions as endangered, which means that said big game hunters would no longer be able to bring their dead lion trophies home, and display them in their 15,000 square foot McMansions to impress their guests. Which means that they would no longer pay large fees to hunt lions, and support Tanzanian conservation efforts.

That has prompted the Director Of Wildlife for the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism to take to the pages of the New York Times to ask Fish & Wildlife not to list the lion as endangered, and remove the incentive American blowhards have to some spend lots of their American dollars on the thrill of blowing a lion away with a high-powered rifle.

Here’s the argument:

Of all the species found here, lions are particularly important because they draw visitors from throughout the world — visitors who support our tourism industry and economy. Many of these visitors only take pictures. But others pay thousands of dollars to pursue lions with rifles and take home trophies from what is often a once-in-a-lifetime hunt. Those hunters spend 10 to 25 times more than regular tourists and travel to (and spend money in) remote areas rarely visited by photographic tourists.

In Tanzania, lions are hunted under a 21-day safari package. Hunters pay $9,800 in government fees for the opportunity. An average of about 200 lions are shot a year, generating about $1,960,000 in revenue. Money is also spent on camp fees, wages, local goods and transportation. And hunters almost always come to hunt more than one species, though the lion is often the most coveted trophy sought. All told, trophy hunting generated roughly $75 million for Tanzania’s economy from 2008 to 2011.

The money helps support 26 game reserves and a growing number of wildlife management areas owned and operated by local communities as well as the building of roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure — all of which are important as Tanzania continues to develop as a peaceful and thriving democracy.

Putting aside the notion that putting an end to lion hunting will somehow endanger Tanzanian growth and democracy, there is a certain practical logic to this argument. Kill a few lions to save the rest. But just because it is practical does not mean that it is moral or acceptable.

It would be nice if Tanzania would take the trouble to search for alternative solutions, instead of relying on the easy money of people who think that shooting lion will impress their poker buddies. And I suspect that some of that $75 million from trophy hunting finds its way into a few pockets here and there.

Lion populations are shrinking

But this paradox of killing lions to save them is also a reminder that anyone who cares about lions, or any other species, and prefers a more humane formula for conservation, must be willing to support aid to poorer countries that cannot afford conservation on their own. Too often, the developed world reacts with outrage to animal abuse, slaughter, or mismanagement in the developing world, and reacts with equal outrage to the idea that more assistance should flow from the wealthy countries to the poorer countries to help them meet conservation challenges.

Yes, assistance must be safeguarded against corruption and misuse. But lions in Tanzania, along with so many other iconic and important regional species, are viewed as a global resource, and a matter of global concern, by the rest of the world. So the rest of the world needs to be willing to put some skin in the game and contribute what’s needed to manage and conserve those species on a global basis. Otherwise, the Texans with trophy rooms will take care of it for the rest of us.