For a few weeks back in 2015, there was no more hated man in America than Dr. Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist who, while on a trophy-hunting trip in Zimbabwe, shot and killed a beloved local lion named Cecil. Though the animal had been largely unknown to most of the world before the incident, the killing sparked mass public outrage, including protests outside Palmer’s office and condemnations from politicians, news outlets, and celebrities. The idea of a well-heeled white American paying tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of murdering such a majestic beast was viscerally repulsive to many, but there was also a whiff of hypocrisy about the whole spectacle given that America is the land of McDonald’s, Tyson Foods, and Cabela’s.
While Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s thoughtful and visually arresting Trophy doesn’t quite exculpate people like Palmer, it goes a long way toward complicating our moral assumptions about trophy hunting, as well as a host of other wildlife issues, including conservation, poaching, rhino farms, and the proper balance between man and nature. By film’s end, we’ve watched one of its subjects—Philip Glass, a sheep breeder on a quest to bag the “big five” (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino)—track and kill a lion before posing for photos with its lifeless corpse. This moment, if placed at the start of Trophy, would no doubt elicit utter revulsion, but because we’ve come to know Philip and his profound relationship with nature over the film’s previous hour and a half, it’s fraught with conflicting emotions and moral ambiguity. Is this kill justified by the money that Philip’s hunting trip will contribute to local conservation efforts? And is anyone who eats meat—such as the lambs that Philip raises for slaughter—really in a position to judge a hunter?
If some of us might still condemn Philip, the viewer can at least recognize his genuine respect for nature. Not so for the “shooters,” tacky vacationers who spend a couple of days in resort-like settings, blasting animals in the face at point blank range in between swigs of beer and checking their phones for the price of oil. The casualness with which these individuals take a living creature’s life—in one case, shooting an elephant multiple times as it groans in agony—is truly chilling. If Philip’s hunting is about becoming closer with the beasts he kills, the other shooters depicted here are little more than high-end consumers, interested in wildlife only as carcasses to be skinned, taxidermied, and put on display in their suburban McMansions.
Schwarz and Clusiau link the issue of trophy hunting with another morally knotty problem that highlights the tension between humans and wildlife in Africa: rhinoceros poaching. Because of the lucrative trade in their horns, the rhino population in countries like South Africa are facing rapid decline and endangerment. John Hume, a wealthy resort owner turned rhino breeder, believes he has a solution: raising these animals on farms and harvesting their horns without killing them, then selling the ivory on the international market. By providing a steady legal supply, John argues, buyers will no longer be forced to turn to poachers, and these animals can be gradually repopulated on farms. The only problem is South Africa’s ban on rhino horn sales, which prohibits even sales of ethically harvested ivory.
Trophy gives voice to John’s critics, who question his plan’s ethics and efficacy, but it’s clear who Schwarz and Clusiau side with. The filmmakers portray him as a selfless conservationist courageously fighting heavy-handed bureaucrats and deep-pocketed environmentalists out of his boundless love for rhinos, but they largely ignore the vast fortune John stands to gain if allowed to sell off his cache of already harvested ivory. Dismissing reeducation efforts as unrealistic, Trophy ultimately leaves one with the limited choice between ham-fisted regulation on the one hand and John’s capitalist solutionism on the other. If those are really the only options, the film’s message is far grimmer than Schwarz and Clusiau seem to recognize: that the only way to save a wild species from extinction is to make it turn a profit.