Three black rhino are poached on average every single day in South Africa. In their native continent, the species are classed as critically endangered: just two steps away from extinct on the IUCN Red List. Like tigers, elephants and lions – among many other wild animals – black rhino are disappearing at a heartbreaking rate, their valuable horns making them so vulnerable, African authorities no longer disclose where they are for security reasons.
What if the solution, then, to protecting black rhino – to ensuring these species’ survival and maybe even their growth – was to hunt them?
In Trophy (2017, dir. Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz) a group drive quickly towards a rhino. They tranquilise it, constrain it, and proceed to saw its horn off. The rhino had been roaming the grounds of the Buffalo Dream Ranch; owned by property magnate John Hume, it boasts the largest private collection of rhino in the world. But the team of people hacking at this mighty creature’s horn are not poachers. They are from the ranch’s team and are dedicated to conserving and protecting the species.
Rhino horn, we learn, is very lucrative. Hume’s collection alone (his team trims the ranch’s rhino’s horns down every two years) is said to be worth around £35 million. The many red flags – it has been at the centre of a game of legal ping pong in South Africa for years, most recently resulting in a ban on horn trade being overturned – have never slowed its global demand. So why not use this brutal reality as an advantage, and put money made from the legal trade of rhino horn back into the conservation efforts?
The acquisition and trade of this prized and expensive part is not the only way that much-needed funds could be pumped into protecting endangered animals. The U.S. hunting industry is worth billions of dollars, and there’s a contentious debate around whether or not allowing rich foreigners to legally hunt and kill vulnerable species is a necessary evil in ensuring the safety and conservation of those same creatures. Trophy follows Texan ranch-owner Philip, who travels to Africa in pursuit of the “big five” (buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant and rhino). Watching him salivate at the idea of hunting and killing these animals, to add their lifeless bodies to his collection, is a deeply unsettling experience. Philip is far from alone in believing that this is the future of wildlife conservation.
There are other important issues discussed in the film. Hunting’s colonial roots. The ripple effect that organised hunts, the clamp down on poaching, and the displacement of wild animals is having on rural African communities. The personal struggles of South African natives, motivated seemingly equally by their love for their country’s animals and their own desires to make money. In the shadow of Brexit and Trump – both bringing with them alarming changes to animal welfare standards – Trophy does not shy away from a difficult, and often incredibly upsetting, subject matter.
As a vegan and supporter of animal rights, I often come up against the argument that, if we stopped raising animals for food, they’d simply die out. My response to this is always that seeing farm animal populations dwindle would be preferable to seeing them maintained under miserable conditions. Can I say the same of these beasts of the wild, of endangered black rhino, and elephants? Would I rather see these species extinct than hanging on in a world where they are increasingly seen purely in terms of the financial value?
The fact that we have reached this point – that one of the most viable ways we might be able to save a species is by further commodifying and victimising it – makes me very sad. There’s no right or wrong answer to this problem – there are only the options we’ve left ourselves with. Part of me feels as though utilising the revenue from hunting and wildlife trade to fund conservation and fight against poaching, as hideous a notion as it is, is as legitimate a measure as continuing to support charities, or tirelessly lobby authorities. Part of me feels like the human race has dealt itself this poor hand, and now we have to deal with the terrible outcome.
I try to stay hopeful despite everything, and remain a positive advocate for all animals’ rights. Raising and spreading awareness is key to that so, if you can, see Trophy. It’ll get you thinking and change your perception in the way any well-told documentary should. Just make sure you take along some tissues.
Trophy is released in cinemas, on digital download, and on DVD, on November 17th.
Thank you to the teams at Freuds and Universal for inviting me along to the Trophy screening in London last month. All opinions are my own.
Image credit: Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz.