Lion Spy review – undercover exposé of trophy hunters paying to kill big cats in Africa

Rogue Rubin goes undercover to reveal the disturbing, hero-complex mindset of the men who shoot lions for sport

The courageous, covert work of Rogue Rubin behind the camera gives us a rare glimpse into the world of trophy hunting: rich folk – mostly men, mostly Americans and Europeans, some with Hemingway beards – paying to kill on safari. In a film subtitled “The Hunt for Justice”, Rubin, a liberal vegetarian from Melbourne, first creates fake social media accounts under a false name, reinventing herself as pro-hunting enthusiast and budding photographer Joni Kiser.

Rubin then goes undercover as an intern with a big game hunter in Africa. There is a particularly horrible hunt in which Bob, an American on safari with his college-age daughter, kills a wild lion. Like all the hunters he uses a high-powered rifle – it’s a long way from a fair fight. What’s disturbing is the narrative Bob creates to justify the kill: in his head this lion is a “problem cat” and he’s the hero protecting local people. As Rubin sarkily asks: “Do they need the help of an American dad?” Bob poses for photographs with his kill, then it’s off to the taxidermist.

In one or two places Rubin’s commentary is a bit overcooked and she makes one or two sweeping generalisations about Africa. But lions are classified as vulnerable to extinction, and half of Africa’s lions have disappeared since Disney released The Lion King in 1994. Trophy hunting isn’t the biggest threat; it ranks below loss of habitat due to human encroachment, the bushmeat trade and farmers killing lions to protect livestock. Rubin does explore the debate around trophy hunting, and not all conservationists oppose it. But really her film is an exposé of the minds and mentalities of trophy hunters, best summed up by a clip of talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel talking after a Minnesota dentist killed one of Zimbabwe’s most beloved lions in 2015. “Is it that difficult for you to get an erection that you need to kill things?”

• Lion Spy is released on 1 August on digital platforms.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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