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How Trophy aims to open the debate on big-game hunting and animal conservation

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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. The National Student spoke to directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, and the world’s largest private rhino breeder John Hume about the grey struggles animal conservation faces.

In the documentary, the audience is first introduced to Philip Glass, a Texan and lifelong hunter whose dream is to hunt each of the “Big Five”: a lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino, and elephant. As despicable as this sounds at first, Philip is truly convinced his big-game hunting is helping save the targeted species from extinction. This is not a simple delusion on his part, but the conclusion of a well-thought reasoning.

The thousands of dollars he pays for each animal (around $50 000 for an elephant) goes toward helping rangers track poachers, and the up keeping of the reserves the animals inhabit. There is also a common mantra that is chief in Philip’s belief, which is that “if it pays, it stays”- that is, if you assign monetary value to an animal, it is worth protecting, as its being alive is financially beneficial. So, paradoxically, by hunting and killing the Big Five, Philip is seemingly helping in their conservation by encouraging their breeding and protection from poachers.

The documentary aims to weigh both sides of the debate surrounding this controversial claim. However, Clusiau and Schwarz admit this was not their original goal: “At the beginning, we came thinking that we should shame this industry”, Schwarz says. In fact, it is only when they were introduced to John Hume, a fierce advocate for the legalising of the rhino horn trade that the directors started to understand the complexity of the matter.

Hume believes in the “if it pays, it stays” mantra- and aims to harvest and sell the horns of his more than 1500 rhinos- a process seemingly roughly akin to cutting one’s fingernail.

“My detractors of course will tell you that I’m doing it for greed, that I want all this money from the horn”, he says.“ If I sold all of the horns I have, which is six tons of it, at what I consider an average price in South Africa of 10 000 dollars, I would get about half of what my project has cost me to date.” A retired property developer, Hume spends about five million Rand (£263 000) each month on security for the animals, veterinary costs, and various other expenses.

Schwarz says, “John was introduced to us as ‘this devil that wants to gain of the rhinos’. And I think pretty quickly when we met him, we thought that even though we were not sure that we agreed with him, we didn’t feel that he was the cynical person we were led to believe. We felt that he really believes this is his life mission, and that he really believes in what he does.”

“I think that was the beginning of me questioning things”, he continued. “I think that’s what started setting the tone for making Trophy more as a ‘heart and mind’ battle daring to ask hard questions.”

This year, Hume took the South African government to court in order to lift a 2009 moratorium on the domestic rhino horn trade that triggered a massive spike in poaching.

After winning the case, he held his first rhino horn auction in August. However, the international ban still remains, which means that the horn’s biggest demanders, China and Vietnam, were not allowed to take part.

“I believe I have the recipe to save rhinos from extinction. I genuinely do”, Hume says. “I believe I have proved it on my project. But the world does not want to see it.

“In some instances, it’s definitely because of ignorance. Some people have no idea what they’re talking about and yet they tell me a lot about how I should breed my rhinos”.

One of the aspects of the issue that is hard to grasp for Westerners is that wild animals are sometimes a burden for Africa and that the economic factor plays an important part for the population. Clusiau says, “one of the things I learned the most about is that if you go to these communities where there is an incentive to look over the animals, it creates a whole different dynamic. That even though we don’t want elephants bulldozing our crops or lions eating our children, the monetary incentive means that the population will be less inclined just to poison everything.

“They tend to have a greater idea of how to live with these rhinos and elephants, and that it’s possible to take other measures to take them away from us that does not require killing. And so I think it’s that attitude that I learned a ton about… that this incentive, the economics of it is really an important thing to this issue.”

Hume has already felt Trophy is helping the audience understand the complex issue a bit better: “People seem a bit more informed. And if people are informed, they might still have an opinion that’s not yours, but it’s easier to debate with them. It’s easier to spread your word.

Schwarz adds, “I think hunters, animal rights organisations, all of us, we agree on the base issue, which is great: we all want animals to be here forever. That’s not like gun control, like abortion. We want to get to the same place, we just disagree how to get there.

“The problem is, in order to get there, we have to start talking because the left and the right here, they hate each other. And they’re not listening to each other. And I really believe it’s going to take all of us if we have a chance.

“I think that’s why we see this film as a conversation starter. It would have been an easier marketing film if we would have just shamed this industry, but that would not have been responsible.”

Trophy is a documentary that takes its audience out of its comfort zone by questioning our beliefs and ethical positions on the pressing issue at hand. From an American trophy hunter to the world’s largest rhino breeder in South Africa, it grapples with the consequences of imposing economic value on animals. It will leave you debating what is right, what is wrong and what is necessary in order to save the great species of the world.  

Trophy is released in cinemas and on DVD and Digital Download on 17th November.

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