A lioness has lain prone outside the Philadelphia Zoo for 141 years with an arrow deep in her back.
Millions of people have filed past The Dying Lioness sculpture at the main entrance, but most probably focus on the thick-maned male lion standing alert above her, not the fatal shot from an unknown archer.
In the world of exotic, big-game hunting in far-off Africa, it’s a lot more affordable to stalk a lioness than the trophy male that high-stakes hunters want to knock off their bucket lists.
“This will be an unforgettable lioness hunt! The lions and lionesses in this area are feeding on resident game populations and are dangerous!” one website boasts about $6,500 lioness hunts in Africa.
The documentary Trophy, opening Friday at the Prince Theater on Chestnut Street, takes viewers deep into the controversial world of big-game hunting. There’s plenty of blood, so be warned, but the documentary’s real aim is to challenge dug-in opinions and explore big-game hunting’s complicated relationships with the African economy and wildlife conservation efforts.
“We really wanted to shame the industry,” filmmaker Christina Clusiau said last week at an International Documentary Association screening. “And then we realized it’s not so black and white.”
In Africa, hunters can stalk and kill almost anything for a fee, including giraffes, hippos, elephants, and plenty of lions. Most of America recoiled in 2015 when Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed a well-known, black-maned lion named Cecil at a farm outside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Palmer reportedly paid $54,000 to bow-hunt lions.
As a result of that story, New Jersey Gov. Christie signed a bill last year that banned hunters from bringing back trophies from African big-game hunts.
Trophy opens with a father and son hunting deer in the United States, something millions of Americans do every year. Pennsylvania alone sold 914, 244 “general hunting” licenses last year.
There’s nothing quite so exotic or dangerous to hunt in Pennsylvania, but there are plenty of private game reserves here that offer boar, buffalo, elk, and a wide assortment of rams and goats. One upscale lodge in Huntingdon County offers WiFi, an on-site butcher, and a fully stocked sports bar. Elk hunts there range from $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the size of the antlers.
At one ranch in Tioga County, hunters can bag a Russian/European boar for $750.
Several of the Pennsylvania hunting ranches did not return requests for comment. One owner declined, saying he’d “better not get involved.”
Proponents of international big-game hunting say revenue from the hobby is one of the best ways to protect endangered species from poachers, angry farmers who are losing crops and livestock, and continued development of rural lands.
Havertown resident Don Eichman, a member of Safari Club International, has hunted animals all over the world. His home is filled with trophies, everything from warthogs and caribou to a massive giraffe head and neck in his foyer. He believes hunters are just as interested in keeping species healthy and intact as conservationists.
“They go hand in hand,” Eichman said in an e-mail from Montana, where he’s hunting elk.
One of the most interesting voices in the film is John Hume, a South African rhino breeder who “trims” down their horns to make the animals less valuable to poachers. He recently won the right to sell the horns.
“Give me one animal that has gone extinct while farmers were breeding it and making money out of it,” Hume says in the film.
In 2014, a group of University of Pennsylvania veterinary students traveled to South Africa to help a veterinarian who was also dehorning rhinos in the wild with a chainsaw after sedating them. Poachers often shoot the rhinos before they hack off the horns.
Trophy is filled with animals: deer in dusty Texas fields, aisle upon aisle of stuffed game at a Las Vegas hunting convention, and roped crocodiles fighting and twisting to break free from a team of herders, their tails tossing wheelbarrows as though they were paper cups.
The animals, often just moments from death, are the protagonists of the film, living in the world we’ve left them with, commodified, studied, and hunted.
“There are no more wild places,” said Craig Packer, an ecology professor and lion researcher at the University of Minnesota who is featured in the film. “Wild animals have to be managed, forever.”