Elephants, rifles and nature conservation in Kenya

    17 May 2021

    ‘When Lambs Become Lions’ by Jon Kasbe is not the first in a series of documentaries about the fight against wildlife destruction in Africa. For instance, I strongly recommend you to watch ‘Virunga, a movie about the struggle to save elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, Kasbe has managed to find an innovative ‘trick’ in this timeless topic.

    The director chose a view from the perspective of people who destroy nature and kill rare animals. He puts a spotlight on their fates, motivations and social background of their actions. The man with the camera relentlessly follows the main characters to the places where documentary filmmakers are usually not allowed.

    Jon Kasbe was born in an Australian-Indian family and spent most of his childhood traveling around the world. At the age of 10, he bought his first camera to film interviews with the children of war-torn Serbia, where his parents volunteered. The director was 27 at the time ‘When Lambs Become Lions’ was released. Prior to that, Jon’s short films had been screened around the world. They’ve received two nominations and one Emmy Award, as well as recognition from Webbys, SXSW, Hot Docs, Vimeo Staff Picks and the White News Photographers Association.

    ‘When Lambs Become Lions’ is Jon’s feature-length debut as a cameraman, director and producer. The successful Kickstarter campaign brought the film a keen audience, and it complemented other similarly-themed films like ‘Blackfish’, ‘The Cove’ and ‘Trophy’.

    The setting of the Kasbe movie is Kenya, East Africa. The country is known for 59 national parks and reserves (another strongly environmentalist film, ‘Thank you for the Rain’, shows the struggle of Kenya’s communities against climate change).

    ‘When lambs become lions’ tells the story of several people living in the same community (a city at the border of the reserve). On a whim of fate and due to their personal inclinations they’ve found themselves on the opposite sides of the barricades. There is a successful mafioso labeled ‘X’ selling ivory; Lucas, his supplier, a professional elephant hunter; Asan, a huntsman professionally fighting poachers. All names are fictitious, although faces are shown openly.

    The main feature of the movie is ‘gonzo journalism’: filming the inside of the process, frank conversations about the everyday problems of all the ‘actors’, down to financial negotiations and family quarrels. Kasbe has spent years interacting with his characters. This style of work is also a feature of the executive producer of the movie, Matthew Heineman (author of the films ‘Private War’, ‘Ghost Town’, etc.). As the director explained at a meeting with the audience at ‘Dokudays’ film festival, he cut out all the conversations that the characters did not want on tape. However, what remains is still impressive, as poachers don’t hide the details of their activities. The only ones who the author did not showcase were the ivory buyers – at the insistence of the suppliers.

    Who are these hunters, ready to face arrest, moral condemnation of the world and even death, all in order to feed their families? Kasbe explains: ‘X’ said at our first meeting, ‘I may have killed elephants, but at least I don’t kill people’. ‘X’ and Lucas are descendants of elephant hunters. They were taught by their fathers to make poisoned arrows. They wore tusks on their shoulders when they were little boys. They heard whispers around them in the city after Father X disappeared. He was shot by rangers and left to die in the bushes.

    For them, hunting is a way of life, their heritage, their livelihood. Their attitude to animals around them was formed long before the arrival of white people, who first came to colonize and then started biodiversity preservation. I realized that I’d never seen a documentary or feature film about poaching from a poacher’s point of view. For many of them, hunting for elephants only became illegal over the course their lives.

    A significant point of interest in the film is that it shows the lives of people from the same social strata, with the same standard of living, who have ended up becoming enemies. It comes to the point where one person kills elephants, while another man, his cousin, protects these animals with a ‘Kalashnikov’ in his hands. The huntsman gloomily notes: “We are all hunters here.” At the same time, Asan himself was once a poacher. Asan and the other rangers are presented as deeply committed to their work — ‘it’s better to kill the poacher and spare the elephant.’ To the detained poachers they give out beatings.

    Beyond this social split, the country’s government is actively promoting environmental issues. The declining population of elephants in Africa worries the world community, and the Kenyan government is succumbing to Western pressure. On television in 2016, they show grandiose bonfires made of the skulls and tusks of elephants. The confiscated goods are burned rather spectacularly so that poachers are discouraged from engaging in illegal hunting. Over the course of the film, the clutches around poachers are tightening more and more, hunting becomes increasingly more dangerous. Moreover, the bone merchant ‘X’ is becoming despised by the younger generation of insolent criminals with sources of income.

    Visually, Kenya is depicted as a beautiful country where people are living in under horrific social distress. According to Kasbe, poaching is the result of severe poverty. The film shows both the social stratification of Kenyan society and the unwillingness of some Kenyans to accept the environmental rhetoric of wealthy whites and their own politicians. Very symbolic is the scene where Kenya’s multimillionaire President Uhuru Kenyatta appears on television to burn mountains of tusks and declares that ‘ivory is useless if it is not on our elephants.’ At the same time, ‘X’ and Lucas silently watch from their cramped iron houses as $150 million goes up in flames.

    According to poachers, wildlife defenders value the life of elephants above not only ivory, but also human lives.

    It is noteworthy that ‘X’ does not express any remorse in his interviews. He is a successful person. The last elephants on Earth bother him little as long as they bring him income. And yet he’s not able to personally kill the elephant – ‘X’ entrusts this matter to an experienced hunter.

    It’s also noteworthy that the huntsmen themselves are hostages to their society and their financial situation in it. Their salaries are delayed despite promises from a skinny ‘middle manager, and their families need to be fed. People who are willing to shoot their own neighbors to protect the elephants lose motivation. Tellingly, the former poacher Lucas in the film finale goes to a more lucrative squad of gamekeepers, where the salary is paid on time. This is how his loyalty is bought and life turns around 180 degrees.

    Kasbe and fellow editors Frederic Shanahan and Caitlin Greene have worked to keep the movie dynamic, with footage of night hunting and violent clashes alternating with more tranquil moments in which Asan cries about the future of his family, and ‘X’ declares that he wants to be someone his son can be proud of.

    Ideological nature conservation and biodiversity issues are not particularly close to people in the film. Everyone is worried about the issues of material well-being, the prime concern in Kenyan society. The last elephants in national parks are just a resource over which the state and lone poachers are fighting. It’s not encouraging to see the scenes of public servants, the personification of concern for wildlife, trapping and torturing destitute proletarians or peasants in the forests, as the latter kill elephants to make a living.

    The question of whether human lives are of less value than elephants is just one of the tricky questions that Kasbe poses to his audience.

    There are 415,000 elephants left on the planet, of which 352,271  inhabit the African savannah. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that the elephant population in Africa has experienced its worst decline in 25 years, mainly as a result of increased poaching for ivory. In East Africa, the elephant population has almost halved over the past decade.

    It turns out that only people in camouflage armed with machine guns are able to save endangered animals.

    The plummeting elephant population in Africa has captured the attention of the world, and as the government cracks down, both poachers and rangers face their own existential crises –what is the value of elephant life relative to human life?

    Director Jon Kasbe followed the subjects of ‘When lambs become lions’ over a three-year period, gaining an extraordinary level of access and trust on both sides of the ideological and ethical spectrum. The result is a rare and visually captivating presentation of the perspectives and motives of the people at the epicenter of this conservation crisis.

    Note:  while “When lambs become lions” is committed to shedding light on the human and wildlife tragedies that play out in this world, it does not depict animals of any kind being harmed.

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