CBS Review: Documentary “Trophy” probes blurred lines between big game hunting, “conservation”

It is hard to picture yourself on the fence when it comes to issues of wildlife conservation and hunting for sport. The two seem mutually exclusive, and advocates for each could hardly be blamed for believing they could never see the other side’s point of view.

Which makes the heart-churning new documentary “Trophy” eye-opening, depressing and enlightening all at once. It shows how these issues are inextricably intertwined, because of both the costs of preserving species that face extinction, and the profit motives of the multi-billion-dollar global hunting industry whose clients will pay big bucks to bag a prized specimen of lion, elephant, rhino or other magnificent creature.

And yes, it forces the viewer to reflect on the desires of both sides: those for whom hunting is a God-given right and all God’s creatures under Man’s dominion to do with as we please; and those for whom the death of an animal is intolerable, and who will take to the streets or to social media to target hunters. (Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who hunted and killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015, became an international pariah who received death threats.)

But there are people in the middle, trying to find a way to protect species in an imperfect, capitalist world where, for example, bans on the sale of rhino horn (enacted to protect rhinos from poachers) have actually increased poaching, decimating the species in just a few years.


A hunter poses with the elephant he killed in Namibia in the documentary “Trophy.”


“Trophy” (which had its world premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival) follows several figures pursuing their personal goals involving animals, including: Philip Glass, a Texas rancher who is closing in on fulfilling a hunter’s “Big Five,” if the lion’s recent addition to the endangered species list doesn’t trip him up first; John Hume, a former property developer who has invested millions to raise rhinos and harvest their horns, to keep the animals from being slaughtered by poachers; Christo Gomes, who breeds exotic animals on his South African ranch, appealing to the tastes of his wealthy hunter clients; and Chris Moore, a Zimbabwean wildlife officer who must act like King Solomon among the local community whose livestock and family members are preyed upon by wild animals.

If you think you know these people by these brief descriptions, you are wrong. Moore uses harsh “scared straight” tactics against the children of suspected poachers in the dead of night; Gomes cries when thinking about the animals he raises, only to be killed by the clients who pay his bills; Hume goes to court, fighting to repeal South Africa’s ban on rhino horn sales and avoid financial ruin; and Glass visibly mourns the passing of an elephant, which takes a long, long time to expire from the bullets he has fired into its body.

Director Shaul Schwarz and co-director Christina Clusiau do not pull their punches when showing the glee with which a beer-swigging hunter slaughters an alligator dragged out of its pond. “It’s party time!” he says after firing his rifle at point-blank range. Nor with the Youtube commenter upset over Cecil’s death, who happens to be wearing a leopard print scarf.


A taxidermist puts the finishing touches on a stuffed lion in “Trophy.”


As each person rationalizes their thinking and behavior for the camera, we are left questioning our own moral compass, and where animals fall within it.

One of the most moving sentiments is from a taxidermist, Travis Courtney, who rues that the destruction of habitat forces animals into contact with people. “They always come second,” he says, putting the finishing touches on a stuffed lion.

“This might do justice to them,” he says of his handiwork. “At least that is what I aim for. So if they do become extinct one day, it’s something to show the world what they look like.”

Exceptionally well-photographed, “Trophy” captures the haunting beauty of these threatened animals, whether roaming free in a park beset by poachers or behind chain-link fences, oblivious to the safari that awaits.

The film, strangely, inspires something close to hope — despite the poaching statistics and depressing bloodlust — because, as evoked by the film’s participants in so many different ways, the value of these animals is calculated far beyond mere currency, despite the monetary impulses on view. As anti-poaching activist John Hume observes about harvesting rhino horns rather than slaughtering the animals outright, “Who would kill the hen that lays the golden egg?”

“Trophy” (distributed by The Orchard) opens in New York City and Santa Monica, Calif., on Friday, September 8, and in cities nationwide beginning September 20. (Get tickets.) The film will be broadcast on CNN in 2018. 109 mins. This film is not rated.

To watch a trailer for “Trophy” click on the video player below.  

Trophy – Official U.S. Trailer by The Orchard Movies on YouTube


21 thoughts on “CBS Review: Documentary “Trophy” probes blurred lines between big game hunting, “conservation”

  1. I will never watch a documentary where excuses are made for the perpetrators. It allows wildlife abuse and trafficking to continue! Imagine, am I to believe that a man who raises animals to be shot by hunters ‘cries’ when they die? “Crocodile” tears for sure. He could always get a new line of work, but it wouldn’t be as lucrative – so I have no sympathy for the greedy. And the taxidermist either. Animals would be better off as living tributes. The poor wildlife officer is the only one I have great sympathy for (besides the animals) because poachers, even the crocodile tears crying enabler, could kill him.

    It’s insulting, really, because it keeps the battle to save endangered wildlife at a standstill.

      • Being an animal welfare advocate and animal rights activist, I’m of course not happy about this piece as it seems to glorify trophy hunting but I think it is great for awareness of the controversial issues as well as the protesting efforts and efforts of others who are trying to combat the war on wildlife. The bottom line is, after the film, what side will people choose to support? That will be the real test and reality of where the future leads.

      • I certainly hope that there’s a part of it that details how dangerous being a wildlife officer is, and how many are killed in the process of just doing their jobs to protect endangered wildlife. Also, why have a man who operates a canned hunting outfit, a wild hunt is bad enough, but I don’t see how anyone can support canned hunting?

      • It seems to be making a case for raising animals for slaughter (‘canned hunting’) to save the wild ones, which I don’t know is the case in actuality. Unethical, and I wonder who is behind this propaganda piece. You can see how the ‘writer’ is trying to vilify animal protectors – ‘those for whom a death of an animal is intolerable’ – not a death, but needless killing for a trophy is what I would say. I won’t have anything to do with it.

    • If you think a documentary that presents trophy hunting as the answer and a means to conservation is objective, then I guess should add it to your collection. I however, don’t this this is an objective piece.

      This documentary reminds me of a picture I saw of a dairy farm owner, a woman, standing in front of a row of small crates, each with a calf marked for slaughter insides it. She has this look of sadness on her face and her hand is reaching toward the head of the closest calf as if she wants to reach inside the crate and pet him. So, we are meant to see this picture and think that this woman is just a nice kind person who really cares about the calves that she kills to make money.

  2. This just goes to show you what money can buy, make the good bad the bad good. A documentary paid for by those who love the thrill of killing to name them as conservationists. A bunch of devouring hungry parasites want the public to hail them and love them as saviors of species not the twisted killers that they are. But as always with human societies, ignorance and greed will win until there is nothing left to win.

  3. And then there’s this:

    “But there are people in the middle, trying to find a way to protect species in an imperfect, capitalist world where, for example, bans on the sale of rhino horn (enacted to protect rhinos from poachers) have actually increased poaching, decimating the species in just a few years.”

    Not only does it scream maintaining the corrupt system as it is, it just keeps things at a stalemate. Why not change the system? It seems to promote making a livelihood off of other creatures. Money should not be made on other living creatures against their will, ever. So while the general term death is a part of life, the specific kind of death, in this case killing an animal for overblown egotism, money-making and greed, and even the continuance of white colonialism, is what people object to. I hope they include that. Awareness is one thing, but it could be dangerously biased to promote trophy hunting and raising wildlife for trophies as conservation.

    Unless it is ecotourism and wildlife viewing, and even that can be abused. I hope there’s a segment on non-hunting revenues in it. It’s going to be a tough sell after Blackfish, that’s for sure. I’m not the target audience anyway, so I’ll pass.

  4. This discussion will go on for ever. It is not about who is wrong and who is right. It is about an archaic, outdated practice that is hardly acceptable today, an age when we believe in the rights of all living things on this planet, and especially their contributions to complex earth systems that ensure the continuation of life. Too complex for the small brains of hunters concentrating on cash flows and selfish personal satisfactions.

    • This documentary was not meant to show the issues from the animals’ welfare point of view. This was produced to excuse the killers and portray them as heroes who are doing a necessary evil. Gomez, the guy who cries because he raises animals for canned hunting. I am sure he cries all the way to the bank with his ill-gotten riches!

  5. Note to John Hume who got his way about legalising sale of rhino horn within S Africa, which conservation organisations believe will find its way out of the country on to the black market, and will not help in anyway to prevent poaching: “Who would kill the hen that lays the golden egg?” It depends who’s getting the golden eggs John.

  6. “Trophy” (which had its world premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival) follows several figures pursuing their personal goals involving animals”

    Pursuing their own personal goals? I don’t know which word I should have used in my post above, egotism, egoism, or anthropocentrism, and probably all three apply! I notice the wildlife park ranger could be portrayed possibly in a negative light by his alleged tough love approach with children of poachers too. I understand it but you know there are going to be those who think it, and any impediment at all, is too harsh.

    I don’t know that anti-poaching laws have the negative effect the summary of the film claims, either. Fighting anti-poaching laws and repealing the banning of the sale of rhino horn (and to avoid financial ruin especially) is just reprehensible.

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