If you want to save a species from extinction, kill it.
That’s the counterintuitive, but intriguing, idea behind the documentary Killing the Shepherd. Set in an impoverished section of Africa, it first lays out two real-life, and truly disastrous scenarios about our vanishing wildlife.
In the first, there are no rules or regulations on big-game trophy hunting – and the animal population is decimated.
In the second, there is no trophy hunting – and, because they’re now killed for food, the animal life population is decimated.
So what’s the answer?
Director Thomas Opre suggests a third way, in which safaris are legal, and controlled. A viable population of animals is preserved. Local people share in the profits. And a natural ecosystem is protected.
Is it all too good to be true? Maybe.
The film often plays like a commercial for a single company, Makasa Safaris. The white owners portray themselves as only having the purest motives at heart. Critics who want to outlaw big-game hunting, and trophy taking? Misguided idealists, they insist.
No other viewpoints are presented.
To save their animals – to save themselves, basically, the film asserts – Africans need to sign long-term leases with private operators like Makasa. Never asked is why Africans can’t own these safari companies themselves, or why wildlife tourism needs to include hunting.
Like Seeding Change, another recent documentary about economically correct “conscious commerce,” there’s – at best – a bit of “white savior” propaganda here, suggesting only an outsider can solve the Third World’s problems.
Admitted, rural Zambia, where the film is set, does have its share of problems – illiteracy, alcoholism, child marriages. And however paternalistic Makasa may be, it does provide tangible benefits to the community – schools, clinics, micro-loans to start small businesses.
Of course, what we’re seeing is extremely selective. Closeups of smiling children? We get plenty of those. Scenes where we see lions tracked, shot, skinned and turned into trophies for rich foreigners? Not a one.
We are, though, treated to some gorgeous African landscapes. Fascinating facts, too, like the way villagers fashion a few pieces of wire into deadly animal snares. Intriguing characters, too, like the matriarch who rules this tiny village as chief, standing up to poachers and land speculators alike.
It would have been nice to have had more of her – and less of the old white colonialists, going on and on about their love of Africa.
But even a film that begins – and stubbornly sticks to – a specific point of view can raise worthwhile questions. Like, what do we really value in this world? What are the different needs of nature, and of a community?
And how can we find that rare thing on which all of the natural world is really based – a fair and equal balance?