Killing the Shepherd – why communities must come first in conservation

A review of T.A. Opre’s award-winning documentary on a poor rural community, a safari operator, and the challenges of conservation and development in Zambia.

8th November, Keith Somerville

Hunting, especially trophy hunting, is a hot and increasingly controversial topic.  In Britain efforts are underway, led by Lord Zac Goldsmith (a government environment minister and close friend of Prime Minister Boris Johnson) and supported by animal rights and anti-hunting groups like the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting and Born Free, to ban the import of trophies by British hunters who have hunted abroad.  Across Western Europe and North America people opposed to hunting but with little knowledge or first-hand experience of major wildlife-inhabited areas of Africa and Asia or of the relationship between rural people there and the wildlife with which they coexist but also come into conflict, support bans and are horrified by hunting.

Many of these people supporting bans mean well and are very emotionally attached to the idea of conserving wildlife and hate the idea of killing animals.  They think that trophy hunting is a threat to the survival of endangered species and to wildlife numbers as a whole.  In this, whatever their motives, they are wrong and woefully misinformed. In this documentary, the local community leaders make clear that such bans would damage their lives, communities, income and ultimately not help the wildlife or its habitat.

It is often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and this is certainly the case with attempts to stop hunting without there being in place any alternative means of preventing habitat loss, combating poaching or, crucially, producing income for poor rural communities.  Trophy hunting is not poaching.

  Poaching for ivory or rhino horn is a global criminal activity with organised gangs targeting elephant and rhino for their tusks or horns, which are smuggled to markets in east Asia, the Gulf and still to Europe and the Americas.  What is less well known but can be even more destructive of wildlife and of the livelihoods of rural communities is bushmeat hunting, usually using snares, to produce food for local communities but also for sale in towns.  It is massively damaging, unregulated and indiscriminate.  Getting these facts over to the public and educating them to realise that these are complex issues, where realistic solutions may not be to everyone’s taste but must, I repeat must, be derived from the lives, livelihoods and wishes of the people who live alongside the wildlife, is difficult, often seemingly impossible. But it must be done if conservation projects and local development are to succeed and go hand-in-hand.

T. A. Opre’s hard-hitting, revealing but also, at times, deeply worrying documentary Killing the Shepherd is a major and effective step towards providing the other side of the story – the side of the people and communities most directly affected by living with spectacular but also dangerous and destructive wildlife.

It is centred on the Soli community of the Luano Valley in Zambia – north-east of the capital Lusaka and north of the Lower Zambezi National Park.  It tells the story – from the viewpoint of the community members, their chiefs and the hunting safari operators who work with them – of how the community chief,  Shikabeta (pictured below), and her successor try to raise the community from the dire poverty they experience on a daily basis, from the social problems of unemployment and consequent male alcoholism, lack of health facilities and schooling.

The Soli community once lived alongside a rich diversity of wildlife – including the famous Big Five of Africa (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo).  As the land is not particularly fertile and so is unsuitable for extensive cultivation of crops – something worsened by crop raiding by baboons, bush-pigs and other wildlife – the community derived money from the operation of safari hunting on their land, which brought in foreign trophy hunters, who paid large sums to hunt and brought income and employment to the community and to the safari operators who ran the commercial hunting.  The Luano Valley was a renowned hunting area. 

But in 1987, 2002 and 2003, the Zambian government (under pressure from Western animal rights NGOs and because of corruption within the wildlife department, poor  regulation of hunting) banned hunting.  This created serious problems in Luano and for the Soli.  As Killing the Shepherd details well, with testimony from the chief and local people, the end of income and jobs from hunting meant increasing hardship and the loss of funding for enough game scouts to stop poaching.  Poaching escalated and there was, as the documentary states, “wholesale slaughter of wild game”.  Poachers came from local towns, where there were thriving markets for bushmeat, but local people who had lost jobs and cash through the hunting bans, and could see the wildlife being killed for profit by others, started poaching to feed their families and bring in much-needed money.  Some used guns, many used wire snares, which were cruel and killed or maimed animals indiscriminately.

Soli game scouts with seized snares

Chief Shikabeta saw the poverty and suffering of her people and the social evils deriving from poverty of alcoholism, selling off daughters as child brides, teenage pregnancies and a lack of health care and education and decided she must work to change it.  She believed that better use of the natural resources of the land and wildlife was a possible answer.

As the film documents, she wanted the land to be designated a Game Management Area (GMA) where the local community could make income by working with commercial safari hunting operators to hunt sustainably and fund both development and anti-poaching – to help the wildlife recover and use that wildlife in a regulated way to create income, livelihoods and funds for education and development projects.  She approached Roland Norton, a white Zambian whose family ran Makasa Safaris, to come and consider setting up a hunting operation that would provide not only income and jobs but be involved in supporting education, small-scale agriculture, fish-farming and small business projects.

Norton was interested and bought into the project.  His company established with, and he emphases that word again and again, the chief and her community and operation that ran hunting, generated income, paid for and trained local game scouts, helped establish fish farming to provide not profit but protein, provided interest free loans and helped improve health provision at the two underfunded clinics in the area.

The game scouts fought local poachers and gangs from the nearby towns, seized guns and snares and had poachers sent to prison.  Often local poachers would be required to work locally for the community, and some became game scouts.

Soli community game scouts

The scheme showed early successes in increasing in wildlife populations enabling hunting off-take that did not threaten species, provision of income, setting up of fish farming and restocking of local rivers with fish ,and helping local women establish food and clothing trading businesses and one turning snares into bracelets to be sold abroad.

racelets from snares

But it is not all plain sailing and there is conflict evident between poachers and the game scouts – local men deprived of income from poaching resent and are hostile to the scouts.  Roland Norton and his son have had their lives threatened.  Worst still, Chief Shikabeta and her successor as chief, a well-educated woman from the community, both died in highly questionable circumstances, seemingly as a result nof conflict within the community.  Shikabeta may have been poisoned and her death linked to the misuse of a grain mill donated to the community. He successor, Sikala Paxina, also died suspiciously after refusing to consider allowing land speculators to buy up community land.

Overall, the documentary shows what can be achieved when communities are at the heart of efforts to improve their lives using natural resources in a sustainable and are able to find partners who support them.  The documentary is filled with the voices of local people telling their stories, outlining their hopes and fear, including the voice of those who do not like the direction the chief has taken them in, particularly with the game scouts catching local poachers.

It also shows the obstacles that communities must confront and overcome – conflicts caused by change, lack of investment, the threat of distant decision (like trophy bans) that could destroy their projects and the social effects of grinding poverty that make progress hard, though not necessarily impossible. 

If the film had any gaps, they were the lack of any detailed coverage of the rampant corruption that has plagued the Zambian conservation sector,  particularly the government wildlife authorities, for decades and has often rendered Game Management Areas failures because of the raking-off of profits by wildlife and government officials and even high-ranking politicians.  Income has to go primarily to communities if they are to pull themselves out of poverty and to take ownership and the initiative.  It would also have been interesting to hear the views of more members of the community on the role of the safari operators, would they, for example, prefer to run the hunting themselves rather than have much more prosperous white safari operators involved? These could well prove fertile areas for a follow-up documentary detailing both corruption and the lack of government support for community projects.

But it is a powerful and important documentary that shows a side of conservation rarely seen in the West.  It rightly emphases that people and communities in rural areas have to be the starting point if habitat and wildlife conservation is to succeed alongside desperately needed local economic, health and educational development.

[All the images are supplied by TA Opre, who retains the copyright and they may not be used again without permission}

Keith Somerville  is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, and teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the university. He is a

Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, a Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.  He is also a member of the IUCN CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group and is Editor of  Africa Sustainable Conservation News,  africasustainableconservation

His recent books include – Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa, Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, and Humans and Hyenas. Monsters of Misunderstood.

Killing the Shepherd will be available to the public, ha a digital cinema release on November 27, 2021 through January 15, 2022 at http://www.killingtheshepherd.com. It will roll out in DVD/Blue Ray and various web-based streaming platforms throughout 2022. The Shepherds of Wildlife Society, a Montana-based not-for-profit wildlife conservation and education organization, was established to help tell this very important story, and others like it. The Society encourages the Soli people to gather the illegal wire snares that are so devastating to animals, and turn them into beautiful works of art that can be worn on the wrist as bracelets. Each bracelet sold by the Society represents an animal saved.  The documentary has won 20 major film awards, the most recent at the Golden Gate International Film Festival on 7th November.