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Premiere of ‘Trophy’. A film about hunting in Africa.

I attended the Premiere of the film ‘Trophy’ in London this month. At the reception, I ran into Will Travers, of the Born Free Foundation who participated in the film, and told me, rather disconsolately: ‘You will like it, it is all pro-hunting”. Not sure what to expect, I took my seat with some trepidation. It is not often the subject of African hunting gets examined in any detail in the mainstream, yet here was a feature-length documentary on general release, attempting to put it under some proper scrutiny.

Directed by Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, the film is billed as; ‘An in-depth look into the powerhouse industries of big game hunting, breeding and wildlife conservation in the U.S and Africa, which unravels the complex consequences of treating animals as commodities.’

The film follows the progress of a U.S farmer who plans a trip to Africa to shoot elephant and lion. The crew accompany other U.S hunters to South Africa, where they take part in a ‘canned hunt’ for a crocodile. Another section of the film looks at the activities of anti-poaching rangers in Zimbabwe and highlights the human/animal conflict in poor rural communities, the attempts there to give the local people ownership of the animals and to make them valuable through hunting, so the locals will protect the populations from poachers. This part of the film, following the exploits of a very likeable, and honest, plain speaking Zimbabwean game ranger with an ambivalent attitude towards hunting, who acknowledges the paradox  of protecting animals so they can be hunted, was one of the most interesting.

The other, distinct, segment of the film has nothing to do with trophy hunting at all. It focuses on rhino farmer John Hume and his self-funded programme of rhino conservation, breeding and protection in South Africa. From zero, Hume has built up his stock to close to 1,500 free-range animals, and he is involved in a daily struggle to protect them from the ravages of organised poaching gangs. These gangs want to kill the rhino and steal their horn to sell to the Asian market for ‘traditional medicine’. Rhino horn, in fact, has no medicinal properties. However, it is more expensive to buy on the black market than gold or cocaine.

The central argument that Hume makes is that in order to protect wild rhino, those bred on big ranches like his should be cropped for their horn and the horn sold to pay for their protection and for wider conservation efforts. He further argues that the process is painless, sustainable and akin to shearing sheep for their wool. The film follows his successful attempt to have the ban on sale of rhino horn in South Africa lifted. To date, he has been selling off his property portfolio to fund the project entirely out of his own pocket.

There was heartbreaking footage of slaughtered rhinos rotting in the sun, after having been poached a day earlier: one a mother, with a young calf crying pitifully and running around the carcass in confusion. This brought home the hideous truth about the poaching problem in Africa.

Arguments against the trophy hunting industry were led by Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation. Further commentary was provided by various, non-aligned, experts in the fields of conservation, ecology and economics.

The poster for Trophy is a rhino, with the horn separated and a price tag hanging on it. and the makers claim that: Trophy is a startling exploration of the evolving relationship between big-game hunting and wildlife conservation that will leave you debating what is right, what is wrong and what is necessary in order to save the great species of the world from extinction. 

It succeeds to a degree. However, to my mind, it should have been two films. One about the rhino, its endangered status and the efforts to save it in viable numbers for future generations. That subject has sufficient weight to carry an entire film. It has nothing to do with trophy hunting.

The trophy hunting element focussed narrowly on the South African ranches where captive-bred animals can be shot with minimal effort by visiting tourists, in order to provide them with some trophies for their wall or skins for their use, as well as a few exaggerated stories to tell their friends about how they hunted Africa, just like Teddy Roosevelt did.

This practice shows the worst of that loose group of very different individuals who are generically collected together under the term ‘hunter’. The activities shown on screen were nothing remotely close to the hunting that I have experienced and advocate. They displayed breathtaking arrogance, incompetence and callous disregard for the animals they dispatched. Not only will the general public watch their activities with disgust, but real hunting men will shake their heads in despair and anger at the thought that these people will, inevitably, be seen as representative of us all. They are not.

The filmmakers acknowledge that the conservation of African wildlife is a complex issue with no one-step answer to the problems encountered all over the continent. This is refreshing, as debate is all too often polarised and led by fundamentalists who will not countenance any answer but their own, regardless of the facts in front of them.

Canned hunting is anathema to hunters of the traditional mould. However, in order to be balanced, the film acknowledges the fact that by 1900 South Africa had no wild game left. The land was cleared and given over to cattle. Only with the introduction of game ranching, where native species are given free reign over huge acreages and then hunted as a means of cropping, to the sustainable tune of 25% of population per annum in order for the meat to go into the food chain, has native fauna made a recovery. As a result of ranching, African animals now proliferate on African soil that was one totally denuded of them. This is a success story.

South African lions, once virtually extinct, are now abundant in breeding programmes and the gene pool far better served by these breeding programmes than before they existed. Crudely put, where once there were no lions, now there are thousands. Only the fact that they are hunted in a manner that sportsmen and neutrals would consider unethical is there a problem. However, if you ban the practice, the lions will all disappear. Not an easy problem to solve. The film leaves this uncomfortable conundrum hanging, for the audience to weigh in their own minds.

I was disappointed the film makers did not examine the activities of a serious ‘wild’ safari operator in a country outside South Africa. A man like Danny McCallum could have shown them the quality and quantity of the animals in his long-managed Tanzania concession, how he has maintained and improved the stock of every species with diligent and ethical management practices. He could have shown the film makers the school he built in the nearest village, the maternity unit he built and maintained, the locals he employed, the anti-poaching successes and the on-going battles with poachers and corrupt officials.

Furthermore, they would have met hunters with a sportsman’s ethos of fair chase, hard hunting, a love of the wild and of the animals, and yes, of the hunt. Instead, all we got was the worst of canned hunting on display and the uninformed and unaffiliated will assume it is representative of us all.

In conclusion, Trophy was an interesting journey for the filmmakers, who started out to make a documentary uncovering the horrors of the hunting industry, as they perceived it. What they discovered along the way was; that it is more complex than it appears and that, like it or not, without hunting in its various forms, African wildlife would be far worse off than it is today.

It is a film that raises questions, no doubt. Perhaps it will prompt people to examine some of their preconceptions and consider some of the complexities abundant in the politics of hunting and conservation, rather than simply take an instinctively negative stance towards hunting. However, Will Travers was wrong. I didn’t like the side of hunting that was given the spotlight. Trophy is a provocative film. A showcase for the African hunter it is not.

New Premises

Our new location – Caynham Court.

We are now located at Caynham Court. The new premises is an ancient manor house just 2 1/2 miles from our previous base, in Ludlow. Caynham Court will provide a lot more space and flexibility for the gun shop, hosting shooting parties and other related activities. We now have a full-sized walk- in gun room with 300 gun capacity. We have eight four-day shooting parties booked for next season already, with guests arriving on Monday, shooting Tuesday and Wednesday, free day on Thursday, shooting Friday & Saturday, leaving Sunday. All fully accommodated and catered. Dogs and wives welcome! Of course, we can handle all firearms issues, ammunition supply and any repairs that may be required.

Our dining room will be operational as a regular ‘pop-up’ restaurant twice per month, from March. Visiting chefs from Michelin starred restaurants around the country will be visiting to do two nights’ as resident chef. Claire will handle ‘front of house’ with her usual aplomb and Diggory will drink Champagne and put logs on the fire from time to time.

On another note, we have commissioned a strictly limited edition of fully leather bound books – all the three of the  ‘Vintage Guns’ set: ‘Vintage Guns for the Modern Shot’, ‘The British Boxlock Gun & Rifle‘ and ‘Hammer Guns in Theory & Practice’. We are releasing them in five production runs – each of five sets. There will be a strict maximum release of 25 sets. They are beautifully hand-bound in Ludlow by Ludlow Book Binders, to the very highest standards, using traditional skills. Pages will be gold washed. Sets will be available in May or June and will be signed and numbered by me (Diggory Hadoke). The cost will be £750 per set. We have now sold all five of the first set. Orders now being taken for numbers 6-10.