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Trophy ‘shockumentary’: Does it really compare to Blackfish?

In 1900 there were 500,000 rhinos in the world. Today there are less than 30,000. This shocking statistic opens the controversial new documentary ‘Trophy‘ — and if there’s one thing that audiences can agree on, it’s that this represents a crisis for the species.

I imagine this divisive film, which serves primarily to promote the idea of legalising the trade in rhino horn, offers little else that audiences can universally agree on.

trophy film poster

There’s no doubt that the time is now to act to save this iconic species. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen the momentum intensify when it comes to anti-poaching responses, debates and campaigns concerning rhinos and the horn trade.

Within moments of the film opening (to a scene of father and young son shooting dead a ‘trophy’ deer), we are introduced to South Africa’s most successful rhino breeder, John Hume. I’ve previously heard Mr Hume’s position on the rhinos horn trade at a debate I attended last year. The debate actually features briefly in the film (including a split-second shot of me, holding my pen to take notes for a blog post).

In 2016, John Hume’s rhino farm comprised of more than 1,400 of the animals — also making him first in-line for a huge profit, should the ban on international sale of horn be lifted. A cause he so passionately campaigns for.

“If he had an opinion to give to you, he would say ‘I’m very happy to sacrifice my horn in order to save my life’,” John states, simplifying a somewhat complex issue to a life vs. death scenario, rather than quality of life of a sentient being vs. compromised welfare standards owing to increased exploitation.

I think most people would agree that welfare standards surrounding large scale farming are far from satisfactory (think of the dairy industry) — when money is on the table, it seems that species survival matters only for the sake of profit for the owner, not to encourage an ecosystem to flourish via a natural life for the individual.

white rhinos born free foundations

Rhino by George Logan

Later in the film, John acknowledges that he has a protected stockpile of horns worth at least $16 million. His words echo round my head: “Give me one animal that’s gone extinct while farmers were breeding and making money out of it. There’s not one.” And I can’t think of a single example. But nor can I think of a country whose environment and natural ecosystem hasn’t been drastically altered for the sake of farming.

Another familiar face on this documentary is ecologist Craig Packer, author of the book ‘Lions in the Balance‘. Packer, who chaired the debate last year in which I first encountered John Hume, explains the hunters’ desire to ‘collect’ the big five. That is to kill a lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and a rhino — the cost of legally hunting each of these species reflects how rare each animal is and Packer places the bill to shoot the rarest of these; the rhino, at $350,000. Significantly more than the next in line; elephants at $50,000.

african elephant in Shamwari

Safari Club International President, Joe Hosmer, claims the entire cost of an elephant hunt, which sold for $50,000, would go back into conservation. A wildly unsupported claim — as I discovered in my research for an earlier blog post about trophy hunting and canned lion hunting; the average percentage of hunting fees that make it back into conservation at the community level is more like 3%. For clarification, Safari Club International is an international organisation of hunters — not a jolly collective of tourist-ferrying safari guides; as it’s name might suggest.

At 32 minutes in, Trophy provides us with our first counter argument against the killing of animals for so-called conservation. Adam Roberts of Born Free USA examines the contradiction of Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting culture, whereby he hunted thousands of animals (reportedly 5,000 of which were mammals) and recorded each of his kills, whilst at the same time declaring national parks across the US. Roberts challenges the idea of cloaking the ‘sport’ in ideals of conservation and helping people, suggesting that the reality of the appeal is really in the rush of excitement that hunters feel when they put a bullet in something.

Ecologist Craig Packer expands on this argument: “A hunter was somebody who was willing to go out and spend three weeks walking around on foot tracking an elephant, tracking a lion, to shoot it to take home a trophy. There was a challenge, there was a sense of sport, but what has happened in the last 10 or 15 years has been a growing segment of the hunting demographic which are referred to as ‘the shooters’; the shooters may have to spend as much money as it takes to get a three-week permit, but if they can kill everything in the first two days, they’ll do it and they’ll fly home. It’s that mentality that really feeds the birth of the canned hunting industry… it’s not sport, it’s just killing.”

lion trophy born free foundations

Lion Trophy (c) Blood Lions

Having watched the point blank execution of a lion and a crocodile killed with a bullet to the head after first being injured and tied up; followed by scenes from a canned hunting lion farm and hunters posing with various kills with very little discussion and debate — and certainly no sense of a fair and balanced discussion about the ethics of such behaviour — I have to admit, it just felt rather perverse. But worse was to come as viewers bear witness to the slow, long drawn out death of a young African elephant, groaning through it’s last moments and requiring a shot to the chest at point blank to ‘finish the job’. These graphic scenes literally allow you to see the animal’s last breath.

Since the film’s release on 17th November, Born Free Foundation‘s President Will Travers OBE — who makes a brief appearance in the documentary — warns that the film, which was partly funded by the BBC, leaves viewers marooned in a no-man’s land without credible information on which to make up their minds on the highly-charged issues of trophy hunting and the dangers of promoting a legal international trade in rhino horn.

Kate on Conservation UK

Kate on Conservation

Travers said: “The film is peppered with assumptions and assertions about trophy hunting that are offered in an almost ‘fact-free’ environment. We are told (by a representative of America’s premier hunting organisation, Safari Club International) that ‘all the money [from trophy hunting] will go back into conservation’ with no evidence to back it up. Also that belief in the medical value of rhino horn ‘has been around for millions of years’. Neither is true.”

“In addition, the film presented almost no counter-argument or reliable data relating to the conservation ‘recipe’ of South African, John Hume, the most successful private rhino breeder on the planet, with 1,530 rhino to his name.”

“Mr Hume’s recipe is to breed rhino, cut off their horns and sell them — currently legal in South Africa but prohibited internationally. It is put forward by the film’s makers with almost no risk analysis, no alternative vision and no understanding of what would happen to the world’s 30,000 remaining wild rhino if his dream came true.”

Craig Packer, John Hume and Will Travers

John Hume, Craig Packer and Will Travers at the debate: ‘Should the trade in rhino horn be legalised?’

Born Free say they provided the film-makers with ample evidence drawn from history as to why legalising international rhino horn trade is likely to be a recipe for disaster. In 2008 the international community, despite the desperate pleas of Born Free and others, approved a ‘one-off’ sale of more than 100 tonnes of ivory from South Africa and several other countries to Japan and China. Far from ‘satisfying consumer demand’, as the architects of this sale hoped, it fuelled a dramatic and deadly explosion in poaching and illegal ivory trade.

The African elephant stronghold Tanzania, lost an average of 1,000 elephants a month, every month, for five years between 2009 and 2014. That’s 60,000 elephants. The poaching epidemic continues to this day with 20,000 elephants poached each year, tons of ivory being seized, and wildlife rangers and wardens — the elephants’ first line of defense — losing their lives. More than 1,000 wildlife rangers have been murdered in the last 10 years.

Mr Hume’s naive proposition, supported by pseudo-economics and a failure to understand risk, is likely to have the same impact

Trophy film poster 2

Does the human race really believe you have to kill something to save it? What a sorry, greedy world. My take away thoughts were that many of the people featured in this film stand to make a lot of money from rhino horn. Many of these hunters have a God-complex. Few of the filmmaker’s points are supported with any evidence. If you ARE expecting the next ‘Blackfish‘ when you watch this, you’ll be very disappointed.

 

Learn more about the trade in rhino horn

Discover the documentary ‘Sides of a Horn’, which claims to be the first film to give an unbiased view of South Africa’s ​rhino poaching war from both sides

Want to read about the debate featuring John Hume and Will Travers?

Want to know more about CITES 2016?

Find out more about the work of Craig Packer:

Learn more about ‘Blackfish’

 

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Remembering Rhinos launch: Special interview with Founder Margot Raggett

This week, many of the world’s top wildlife photographers and leading conservationists are joining forces once again for a series of events in London – this year to launch the coffee-table photography book Remembering Rhinos.

remembering rhinos

Remembering Rhinos is the much-anticipated follow-up to last year’s title; Remembering Elephants, for which I attended the launch at the Royal Geographical Society, London, the day before the Global March for Elephants. Similarly to Remembering Elephants, Remembering Rhinos was founded by photographer Margot Raggett in association with the Born Free Foundation.

Like its predecessor, the book and its accompanying exhibition (opening today; 30th October until 11th November) both feature stunning photographs donated by top wildlife photographers from around the globe. In this context of remembering the rhinos before they are confined to memory alone, the incredible images provide a profound, thought-provoking look at what we have to lose should we not win the fight against poaching, habitat loss and the rhino horn trade.

Marlon du Toit Remembering Rhinos

The event comes at a time where the issue of rhino poaching for their keratin horns (the same substance that our fingernails are made from) has been spotlighted by the recent announcement of this year’s winner of the Wildlife Photographer of Year competition; ‘Memorial to a species’ by photojournalist Brent Stirton, which shows a victim of the illegal trade in rhino horn, taken as part of an undercover investigation. The decision of the international jury to select this particular image as their winning entry is a move that Remembering Rhinos Founder Margot Raggett describes as ‘brave’.

“I think the [rhino horn trade is an] issue is on a lot of conservationists’ minds and many of the judges of that award are conservationists,” she tells me in a special interview. “It was a brave decision to choose a picture which will have many of the public turning away from looking at it but it is incredibly important that as many people see it as possible nonetheless. We can’t deny what’s happening anymore, because we are all running out of time to save so many species.”

Memorial to a species by Brent Stirton

Memorial to a species by Brent Stirton, winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award 2017.

I spoke with Margot about the new book, exhibition and Remembering Rhinos’ special launch event to be held at the Royal Geographical Society on the 1st November…

 

Kate: What will make the launch on the 1st November a success to you?

Margot: Good question, I am so focussed on arranging it right now, it is important to step back and think about that… Obviously a packed house, the chance for likeminded people to mingle, talk about the issues and be inspired is all important. But ultimately, the exhibition and launch are all about trying to sell books because THAT’S how we raise funds to put into projects. So the aim is to inspire people to buy as many as they can carry and make it everyone’s Christmas present this year! If we sell out of books by Christmas I will be absolutely thrilled – we printed 4000 rhinos books this year compared to 2500 elephant ones last, so a real step up. 

 

How did Remembering Rhinos come about? Was it always in the pipeline, or a direct response to the success of Remembering Elephants?

During the launch of Remembering Elephants I had a lot of people asking me what’s next, as if it was a given that there should be a follow up. But I was very keen to do one thing at a time and get that first book launched successfully before I made any commitments. A few weeks after that launch I headed out to Africa with my friend, actor Dan Richardson – who had kindly agreed to become an ambassador for us – to have a look at some of the projects we’d supported in Meru in Kenya.

From there we headed to nearby Ol Pejeta and had the opportunity to meet Sudan, the last male northern white rhino left on the planet. That same day we visited a rhino graveyard for all of the rhinos who have been poached in that reserve and the impact of both those visits was immense. Both of us were in tears for much of that day and over dinner that night I declared that I simply had to produce another book to build upon the support we’d gathered. And of course it had to be on rhinos.

Margot Raggett and Dan Richardson with Sudan last male northern white rhino

Margot Raggett and Dan Richardson visit Sudan, the last male northern white rhino

 

How many photographers are involved this time? Are they different or the same the photographers that were involved in Remembering Elephants?

Once again we have 65 contributing photographers and while many are the same, we have swapped in a few new names. Some of the photographers from last time didn’t have suitable rhino pictures and in some instances very few photographers in the world had the images we wanted, such as those of Javan and Sumatran rhinos. Former Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner Steve Winter was a new name for this year and we’re thrilled that he agreed to come to London for our launch and deliver our keynote speech at our RGS launch on November 1st.

 

Why did you choose the Born Free Foundation as the charity to partner with on this?

It was important to me to find a charity partner whose ethics aligned with mine and whom I felt I could trust. No-one ever has anything other than good things to say about Born Free and Virginia McKenna is a personal inspiration to me, so it was a natural fit. They’ve been great.

 

Why is this fundraising campaign/the plight of rhinos so important at the moment?

The rate of poaching for rhino horn has soared in recent years with its value more than its weight in gold on the black market. Add to that the recent legalisation of the sale of rhino horn in South Africa, which only masks the illegal trade further, and rhinos are being killed more quickly than they are being born. It is unsustainable. I was chatting to someone the other day who said the media were reaching poaching fatigue in South Africa, which is a frightening prospect. Anything we can do to keep the issue in the spotlight is therefore critical – and the fact that we also raise funds, which can be so quickly deployed into rhino protection, is even better. We are doing something because the rhinos need us and that’s the right thing to do.

 

What will the money raised from Remembering Rhinos go towards? 

At the moment I have a working spreadsheet with potential funds allocated against eight different projects across Africa and Asia (all approved by Born Free) but until we know the final amount raised — which depends upon how many books we sell — we won’t know exactly what we have to distribute. I’d rather give bigger, more meaningful donations to fewer projects than spread ourselves too thinly. There will be an announcement as soon as we can make it.

But in the meantime there are two projects we’ve already started supporting in South Africa from funds raised earlier in the year, which are Saving The Survivors (veterinary care for victims) and Wilderness Foundation Africa (anti-poaching patrols). In mid-November after the launch is done, Dan [Richardson] and I are heading out to visit each of those projects and report back to everyone exactly what effect those funds are having. I see reporting back as a critical element to our success, people quite rightly want to know how their money is making a difference. Accountability is a key part of our success I believe.

Remembering rhinos book

 

Remembering Rhinos talk and launch

A special evening about rhino conservation and photography will be held at the Royal Geographical society, London, on 1st November, and will include talks from former Wildlife Photographer of the Year Steve Winter, Saving the Survivors founder, vet and photographer Johan Marais and Will Travers OBE, President of Born Free Foundation. The event, which Margot Raggett will compère, will also include a presentation of the images from the book and an auction of some of the images.

The books themselves will also be on sale on the night with some of the photographers available to sign them if requested. Books and prints will be on sale to support Born Free Foundation’s rhino-protection work.

Tickets can be purchased from Born Free Foundation: For more info, click here.

Learn more about the rhino horn trade

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Rhino’s Up: One six-year old’s fight to protect the last Northern White Rhinos

Working in conservation and education will always feel like a blessing to me. To see how children react to the issues facing the natural world around them, and to discover time and time again how they seem to intrinsically care about the environment and the wildlife they share it with — it truly fills me with hope and positivity.

One such story that’s started August off on a positive note is that of six-year-old Frankie and his fundraising mission for Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Frankie (pictured above) is on a mission to save rhinos after discovering that there are only three northern white rhinos left in the world.

He decided to launch a fundraising project called ‘RhinosUp to raise £48,000 – the amount that a poached rhino horn might fetch on the black market.

His plan is to create a living sculpture in the shape of a northern white rhino out of bee-friendly plants. Frankie hopes his flowerbed — made in partnership with Fauna & Flora International — will encourage people to think about the plight of rhinos and spread the message that poaching has to end.

Read the full story (and watch Frankie’s video) on National Geographic Kids’ website here.

National geographic kids rhinos up article

Richard Vigne, Ol Pejeta’s CEO said: “I am making a special trip to the UK to meet with Frankie. I am amazed at what this formidable young man has managed to achieve at such a young age.”

“If only the world were made of more people like him, we would not be facing the extinction crisis that we currently are. The northern white rhinos need all the help they can get, and what Frankie is doing will make a huge difference in how we protect them and for the survival of the species.”

Well done Frankie!

For more information on Frankie’s ‘RhinosUp’ project, and to donate online, visit www.rhinosup.com

 

Want to know more about rhino horn poaching?

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‘Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?’ Debate review

In a packed out theatre room in the Royal Institute of Great Britain, I attended my first ever formal debate this time last month; ‘Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?’

As was so rightfully and significantly acknowledged at the end of the evening, the debate was far more than exploring whether or not to commodify an essentially useless (to humans) animal product, but was about our relationship with the natural world.
rhino and calf

A rhino and calf. A photograph I took at Shamwari Game Reserve

To contextualise the debate, rhino horn has a similar street value to heroine; it is used largely for traditional Asian medicine, believed to have properties that provide headache relief in China, and increasingly as cancer treatment in Vietnam. In some countries it is also used ornamentally, as a status symbol. In literal terms, it is made of keratin, the same substance that is found in human hair and fingernails, and likewise, it can regrow.

I hesitate to use the term ‘renewable resource’, as expressed in the debate introduction by ecologist Craig Packer, as I’m not sure the tone should have been set by immediately talking in terms of harvests and exploitation, but nonetheless, the idea behind the trade would be that by ‘shaving’ the horns off of living rhino and monetising them without killing the animal, it would allow for regrowth, meaning a continuing supply of horn (and money for the rhino breeders) in attempt to meet demand.

Representing the case for legalising the trade in horn was rhino breeder and ex-property tycoon John Hume, and arguing against legalising the trade; Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation.

On first appearances, both of these characters appear to be at complete odds with one another; Will Travers wore a black suit and a tie that featured miniature embroidered rhinos, with shoes shined and a small ribbon pinned on his jacket, which I recognised as part of Born Free’s World Wildlife Day campaign. John Hume addressed the audience in his red checked shirt, and a pair of jeans — a more casual approach, and even the debate chair, Craig Packer, fresh from a flight from America, arrived in cargo trousers and sandals. I would be lying if I said first impressions didn’t matter to me, and I very much felt there was a deliberate tone to each person’s dress.

image

But despite differing styles, Packer — who himself is known for his research on lions and the impact of trophy hunting on their population numbers — was quick to address in his introduction that both Hume and Travers were there for the sake of the rhino, both having interest in preventing the species from going extinct, and increasing rhino numbers in South Africa.

Though, to me, it seemed that they were very much on different ends of the spectrum (one advocating wild populations, the other advocating protected numbers in captive circumstances — owing to ‘wild’ areas in South Africa being targeted by poachers), their mutual concern about the boom in rhino poaching over the last decade was a welcome one. The figures quoted during the debate were 15,000 white rhino exist in South Africa today, and only 5,000 black rhino. The dire severity of the case was somewhat summarised by Packer’s statement: “Most of the world doesn’t care. We are in the room are the minority — we are the ones who care enough to come here and talk about this.”

rhino at Shamwari

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”

Opening the debate, Will Travers addressed the importance of this question with regards to this year’s CITES meeting at the end of this month. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. This debate is particularly topical, as there was rumour this year of South Africa presenting the case that trade in white rhino horn should be downgraded globally from Appendix I* to Appendix II, allowing horn to be exported out of South Africa.

*Currently white rhinos are listed as Appendix II for the population of South Africa and Swaziland and for the exclusive purpose of allowing international trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations and hunting trophies.

After considering all angles, under the premise that legal trade could mean more funds, and therefore better protection for living rhinos, and that legal profit could equate to US$717,000,000 per year, South Africa chose not to present the case at CITES this year. As Travers thought-provokingly explained, “On first glance it looks like ‘win, win, win’, but if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. [Changing the annotation of the Appendix II listing in Swaziland and South Africa to include the legal sale of horn] gives the message that this animal product is back on the market, and the demand will only increase.”

There were two case studies presented to illustrate this:

i) Trade in wool from the live sheared vicuña (a llama/alpaca-like member of the camel family found in South America) was legalised under certain conditions, but figures show that in 2015, 90% of the export was still illegal (i.e. not meeting these conditions), with more numbers than ever poached for their hair. 

ii) Since the opening of bear bile farms, to extract the bile of Asiatic black bear to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, the surplus ‘stock’ of this product has begun to make its way into products such as toothpaste and cleanser — ‘new product developments’, which show that as available stock increases, as does demand!

moonbear3

The realities of Asia’s bear bile farms

Added to this, Travers declared that poachers are ‘entrepreneurs’, stating; “if you legally sell [horn] at $30,000 a kilo, they’ll sell at $25,000 — it’s a huge assumption that the legal market will replace illegal trade.”

So, if South Africa have chosen not to present the case at CITES, why is the debate still relevant? Well, whereas South Africa have decided against legalising the trade in horn, Swaziland — with its population of just 73 rhinos — wants to seek CITES approval instead. To do this they will require the support of two-thirds or more of the delegates present and voting.

Swaziland doesn’t have the greatest track record to date, it previously shipped 11 of its 36 wild elephants to zoos in America, due to ‘over-population’. Travers concluded, “There are no simple solutions — legalising it will not make it better, it will only make it worse.”

image

“I think I have the recipe”

Second to take the floor, John Hume, ‘custodian’ to 1403 rhinos, 940 of which he has bred (making him the most successful rhino breeder in South Africa). Hume bought himself a game reserve after making his money in property, and lost his first rhino to poaching in 2007, 15 years after introducing them to the property. He now trims the horn (or rather, recruits a vet to remove then from the rhinos, under anaesthetic) as a deterrent to poachers; if there is no horn on the rhino, there is no reason to poach them.

The potentially very valuable side effect of this, is that he currently has a stockpile of 5 tons of rhino horn — as much as the collective amount of all the other private rhino owners in South Africa. On top of this, the South African government has 22 tons of horn stockpiled, which John explained is more than what is currently on the market. Thinking of the value of horn per kilo, at US$30,000 dollars, the dual narrative of conservation and business is hard to ignore.

There are currently 6200 privately owned rhinos in South Africa, meaning a further 550 per year could be bred by these private owners. The worry is, however, that they would be kept in captive conditions (so not really wild rhino numbers, after all) and private owners may not all have the same high standards of care (or financial means to provide it) — it would be the ideal scenario to enforce a regulated minimum standard, but as Packer declared ‘If we look at the examples of bear bile farms or the lion trophy hunting industry, we simply don’t regulate the standards of care’.

rhinos-farmed

Hume’s main point in this debate was that making the trade in horn illegal is not stopping it, it’s pushing it underground. “If the law doesn’t help the rhino, it should not be in place. When are we going to save the rhinos instead of the horns?” he added. “Rhinos need your local support to save them — I think I have the recipe.”

I’m currently reading Craig Packer’s book, Lions in the Balance, which examines similar issues relating to lions, and Packer challenges the conservationist to consider the survival of the species over the survival of the individual. I was willing to at least open my mind to different schools of thought over this issue and was waiting for Hume’s recipe to include all the good ingredients of a well considered plan. But it simply didn’t. It was no more complicated and considered than: ‘let’s take the risk, because the current law hasn’t caused the poaching to stop, and this way we can make money legitimately from the trade and put it back into this same system of ‘conservation’, at the standards that we have set.’

The future of African Wildlife…

It genuinely worried me that this was being considered as a legitimate option. If the numbers of rhinos being poached every year continue at the rate they are currently, the entire population could be gone in 15 years. A far more beneficial tactic would be to educate, inform and inspire the people of Africa at large to value this animal in it’s whole, live form, with no bits hacked off, and no consolation prize of captive-only populations. As Will concluded:  “The future of African wildlife lies in Africa, it’s up to them, with our support, to lead the charge.” I really hope Swaziland’s CITES proposal doesn’t set the tone.

Keep up to date with this year’s CITES meeting here: cites.org