Vol 11, Issue 8
Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s documentary Trophy enters the debate around big game hunting, and its counterintuitive connection to conservation. Anchored in the narrative of John Hume, a private rhino breeder in South Africa, the film initially suggests a dichotomy: trade and survival against bans and extinction. Of course, it’s not that simple and Schwarz and Clusiau know this. Where Hume profits from the living rhino, Philip Glass, the eager American hunter with whom the film starts, represents the consumer. Somewhere in between, we are told the animal itself might benefit. Trophy never answers its own question about how we best preserve Africa’s big game. Still, it covers a lot of ground and in doing so raises new questions about power, predators and prey, winners and losers.
The film briefly considers how the industry affects local communities. Glass shoots a young bull elephant, who is given to a neighbouring town as part of their allocated ‘own use’ animals. In this instance, the elephant is cut and distributed as food. We also see a confrontation between wildlife officers and locals in Zimbabwe. The women lay flat on the ground, answering questions about their husband’s suspected poaching amidst violent threats by the officers. The wildlife officer acknowledges the fear he instils in these locals, and defends its necessity. He must set these young locals on the straight and narrow, scare them enough not to poach. Scare them literally into the ground.
Trophy is beautiful and heart breaking. It’s easy to get lost in the affective images of Glass hunting with his young son, or the crumbling legs of the buck/buffalo/elephant. The chilling human gleam of that elephant’s eye as its chest rises for a last time. It’s even easier to get lost in the near absurd sincerity of Hume’s love for his rhinos (from whom he’s managed to stock up sixteen million dollars’ worth of horn).
I’m still struck by the image of those rhinos, mutilated and left to rot by poachers. The image I find even harder to shake is less distinct, but it recurs throughout the film. It is that of the unmic’d black man in the background and at the edge of the frame. He is moving the crocodile or adjusting the dead lion for a photo. His is the body that does the pulling and the pointing, but his aren’t the interests depicted. The film touches on the effect of trophy hunting on local communities, but it is first and foremost a rich white man’s expensive game.
There is an interesting, if not compelling, argument for taking money from wealthy hunters through a strictly regulated system and feeding that money into conservation efforts. It’s unsavoury, but it’s practical and it raises important questions—can the ends justify the means? What does it mean to commodify the killing of a living thing? Yet, discussion about who lies in between the hunter and the breeder or conservation authority is notably lacking.
Dr. Femke Brandt does raise this issue. Brandt considers the risk, both physical and financial, that Africa’s indigenous peoples face when they participate in the trophy hunting industry. When housing is connected to employment, a family that loses a father in a lion den loses their home in the same blow. On a broader scale, the potentially significant profits brought into the continent by the industry rarely flow through to the workers. Brandt states, ‘in the context of colonialism and imperialism, nature conservation has been a tool to justify, and violently impose forced displacement of Africa’s indigeneous peoples, facilitated through processes of rural enclosures, and privatisation of natural resources.’ The wildlife industry was built on the interests of British settlers in the 19th century and Brandt suggests that the trophy hunting industry will perpetuate the inequalities that existed then.
The documentary doesn’t delve into a biting critique of the industry’s recollection of those colonial relations, but it doesn’t really need to. Trophy can’t escape its own implications: whichever side wins, the black body remains just out of frame. If trophy hunting is prohibited and endangered animal parts banned from trade, it is the poor black man that poaches, the black family that gets raided. If trophy hunting is encouraged and big game enters the market, it is the black man who is closest on the rope tugging at a 3.6-meter crocodile. We don’t need another talking head, however, to see that even in postcolonial Africa, the trophy hunting industry has an uncomfortably colonial tenor.
You should watch Trophy. You might question who should win, but I can hazard a guess as to who might lose either way.
Dinu Kumarasinghe is a third-year JD student
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