Shaul Schwarz’s and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy explores the complex heart of contemporary issues of animal conservation and commodification at a time when endangered African species such as elephants, rhinos and lions march ever closer to extinction.
This provocative follow-up to Schwarz’s acclaimed Narco Cultura journeys viewers across lush African forests and vast plains and into the world’s largest hunters’ convention in Las Vegas to meet breeders and hunters who passionately believe in animal conservation. A common mantra of these businesses – “if it pays, it stays” – sums up the controversial notion that if you assign monetary value to an animal, it is worth protecting.
Trophy follows Philip Glass, a Texas-based sheep breeder and life-long hunter who is on a quest to collect the “Big Five” (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino). Philip is deeply connected to the land and animals. He spends days or weeks tracking animals in their natural environment before getting his kill. He considers himself a conservationist, and believes the dollars he spends hunting in Africa go back to local communities and help preserve the animals he covets for future generations. This is an argument echoed in the work of Chris Moore, a Zimbabwean wildlife officer whose anti-poaching campaign is partially subsidized by big-game hunters like Philip. Chris works with government authorities and communities to keep people safe from wild animals. He also protects those animals from ruthless poachers. The great irony of Chris’s work is that he goes to “extreme lengths” to protect endangered animals, only to have them killed by trophy hunters.
Trophy enters the world of ranched hunting through businessman and self-confessed animal lover Christo Gomes. Christo owns Mabula Pro Safaris in South Africa, which offers all-inclusive guided safaris for hunters from across the world. For $25,000 to $100,000 a hunter can shoot, kill and bring home a great African animal “trophy.” For Christo, the big money comes from specialty breeding that services the tastes and trends of wealthy hunters. About 70% of Christo’s business comes from American hunting clients.
Adding another layer, we meet John Hume, the world’s largest private rhino breeder. Hume believes that legalization of the trade in rhino horn is the only way to save the rhino from extinction. Every two years, he trims his rhinos’ horns and has stockpiled over 5 tons of horn. He has invested $50 million of his life savings into the project and now has nearly 1500 rhino. Yet he remains a controversial figure and enemy of the animal rights movement.
As Africa’s most iconic animals continue to vanish in droves, can the controversial practices of hunting and breeding actually help the numbers thrive? Can assigning a value to an animal possibly help conserve it? What gives humans the right to own animals and to decide whether they live or die? And is there any real future for a “natural” world in our rapidly developing, capitalist world? In Schwarz’s and Clusiau’s richly cinematic safari, anything is possible, and nothing is as you would expect.
Travis C de Villiers features in a short interview.