“Trophy,” a documentary that explores the commodification of threatened and endangered African species, which premiered earlier this month at the Quad Cinema in New York City, is enough to have Cecil the Lion rolling over in his grave.
While the directors should be commended for putting the issue in the spotlight, it feels more like an attempt by the trophy hunting industry to save face following the public backlash after the tragic death of Cecil the lion at the hands of an American trophy hunter in Zimbabwe in 2015. And it’s no wonder, since the movie’s narrative unfolds after the directors attend the Safari Club International’s (SCI) annual hunter’s convention.
They drank the Kool-Aid.
To appease the public, the trophy hunting industry claims that without it there would be no money in Africa for conservation. In the movie, well-heeled American trophy hunters are the unsung heroes whose money is helping to save Africa’s magnificent animals from the bad-guys—local poachers driving these animals to extinction. It’s hard to stomach the hypocrisy—American trophy hunters think their money makes killing ok.
The idea that it doesn’t is not broached by directors who promise to tell both sides of the story with critical examination. The movie never considers that legal trophy hunting is one of the reasons that Africa’s Big Five face extinction in the first place and that legal trophy hunting fuels poaching.
The movie doesn’t discuss a study that reveals only a measly three percent of the $200 million SCI officials claim it brings into remote areas of Africa actually goes back to the local communities for conservation or development. Without the involvement of local people in conservation, it is impossible to reduce poaching, reduce human-animal conflict or to reduce agricultural encroachment on wildlife habitat. Not to mention the gold standard of conservation, reintroduction of species into the wild. Viewers never see one example of this.
The movie never addresses the economic benefits of wildlife watching safaris, which provide employment for local populations. In the Okavango in Botswana, safari tourism created 39 times the number of jobs than big game hunting.
It neglects to mention how trophy hunting can exacerbate human/lion conflict because it interferes with lions’ social dynamic, which has been documented by conservationist Brent Stapelkamp who studied Cecil for over a decade as part of the Hwange Lion Research Project.
And why no mention of the milestone for African elephants in 2016 — when a D.C. federal judge upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s 2014 decision to ban imports of sport-hunted African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, citing lack of information to prove that the sport-hunting programs enhance the survival of the species? This decision struck down a challenge brought by the Safari Club and the National Rifle Association.
Instead, viewers hear from a smug hunter posing for a photo over a dead lion, “No bureaucrat can keep me from my trophy.”
Speaking of bureaucracy, you would think since the directors decided to debut their film in New York, the busiest port of entry for “trophies” coming into the United States, they would be aware of Cecil’s Law (SB-1883/A4010), historic legislation that has been introduced in New York that would ban the importation, possession, sale or transportation of the African elephant, lion, leopard, and black and white rhinos and their body parts.
But they weren’t.
Another misstep. Because Cecil’s Law, unlike a documentary that can simply raise awareness, could actually do something tangible now for lions and other African species.
Perhaps Cecil’s Law would have complicated the overall narrative too much, because such legislation recognizes that for the wild things in “Trophy,” life doesn’t have a price.
Priscilla Feral is president of Friends of Animals. Assembly member Luis Sepulveda, D-Bronx, is a co-sponsor of Cecil’s Law.
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