Killing the Shepherd is a wildlife conservation documentary that focuses on Shikabeta, a small ward in Zambia on the border of the Luano Game Management Area. GMAs and other conservation territory make up a large portion of Zambia’s total land area. Humans cannot settle in these areas, although many of their local communities rely on the wildlife who live there for sustenance and economic survival. Some resort to poaching, which has contributed in part to depletion of the animal populations.
Director Thomas Opre is director of the Shepherds of Wildlife Society, a not-for-profit devoted to helping those populations thrive. His website, and the film, talk about the “human tsunami” and seeking ways to limit humanity’s impact on the environments in which we live. He spent years in Zambia creating this film, speaking to the villagers and the white men who make their living running hunting tours for wealthy tourists. It’s frustrating, then, that a lot of the interesting conservation arguments ultimately get drowned out in what feels like self-aggrandizing advertisements and testimonials for the local safari company.
Rural Zambia is impoverished to an extreme degree, a fact Opre documents well here. He interviews villagers about their lives and lifestyles. This is the most interesting question of the film: What is the socioeconomic impact of hardline conservation policies — i.e. “no humans may enter this land or kill these animals” — on local populations? The core argument is that a public policy that’s more open to safari companies coming in, setting up resorts and employing the local populace is also good for the local humans and wildlife.
Game preserves, Opre argues, allow for a more effective population check than simply telling people not to enter but never policing for poachers. You can’t take the humans out of these areas, but you can certainly employ them to stop other humans … and wash dishes and clean sheets. Unchecked, the people will kill as much as they can. So let people hire someone to stop that from happening, even if it means allowing white outsiders to hunt a few for sport.
Enter the safari companies, such as Makasa Safaris, the one managed by Roland Norton and his son, Alistar. Roland’s father was also a hunter, and they have some history in the business. Most of the film is told from the Nortons’ perspectives and suffers for it. Whether or not you agree with their beliefs regarding animal preservation (which amount to privatizing large sections of land area) or social policy (which basically boils down to them supporting the economy of the community for those who work for them, with no real oversight), the film itself becomes one long testimonial about how great their company is and all the amazing things they feel they’ve done for the community.
That’s a problem when it’s clear they’re not universally beloved. The village’s first Chief, an older woman who welcomes their money in, is featured prominently at the start. “They view their Chieftain as a god,” Roland tells Opre, in the kind of commentary on an indigenous community that sounds outright archaic. Then she’s assassinated, although there isn’t much interest in exploring the political dynamics at hand that led to her death. A second Chief, a younger woman with a big-city education, is elected by a larger political body about which we get very little information. She also sings praises about Makasa and ends up dead. Roland and Alistar speculate foul play even though cause of death is listed as a stroke. All the while, they talk about the danger poachers present to the animals in their area and even themselves: They have prices on their heads, too.
But for the most part, the film feels like it exists in a vacuum, endlessly repeating two points — that turning over sections of wildlife areas to private companies is better for animal populations and that Makasa Safaris is doing unequivocal good in the community. The former point is, at least, presented with facts and figures, although it doesn’t make much of an argument for how this model would be politically supported across Zambia as a whole (whose politics remain nebulous in the film). The latter point makes the movie feel like an infomercial — nothing but praises and positives, even as Roland, charismatic as he is, muses that his village has no room for drunkards who don’t work for him.
Look, I’m skeptical of the idea that giving African land to outsiders to run and control as their own quasi-feudal states is the best way to pull locals out of destitution. Seems like we’ve seen plenty of these arrangements fail over and over again for a number of reasons. Even Roland admits in the documentary that their 20-year plan for the safari relies on the last 10 years making up for the investments they make in the first 10. Suppose that doesn’t happen? There’s little accounting here about where all the money goes or how it flows, just interviews with employees whose lives rely on the company. Of course they’re going to sing its praises. Despite my skepticism regarding the arrangement, the film itself is weaker for the fact that it becomes large sections of captive interviews saying precisely what you’d expect them to say given the power arrangement they’re in with their local employer.
Killing the Shepherd is by no means a terrible film, although it has kind of a terrible title. It’s just hyper-focused on conservation above all else and not particularly interested in digging deep into its subjects or structures around solutions for the depopulation of African safaris. It makes a case for why we should allow private game hunting on these lands in relation to animals. Opre is a skilled cinematographer and wildlife activist who has shot a gorgeous film. For those already convinced this is the solution in Africa, it will sing to them.
Heck, as someone who doesn’t know a whole lot about conservation, it even made me curious to learn more about whether well-regulated gaming areas would help with wildlife populations because of how much humankind has already fucked with the ecosystems. Unfortunately the rest of the documentary just feels like such a spurious, one-sided look at an economic arrangement that only gives voice to those who are directly benefiting from it, which is not the recipe for a compelling story.