Killing The Shepherd

Killing The Shepherd (2021)

At the heart of the documentary Killing The Shepherd – Thomas ‘Ta’ Opre’s feature debut as writer, director, producer, editor and cinematographer – paradoxes abound. Ever since, in the Eighties, hunting was banned by the Ministry of Tourism in Shikabeta, a small forest kingdom in the remote lower Luano Valley area of Zambia, the numbers of local wildlife have been gravely depleted rather than increased, and poverty has set in. This is because, in this infertile region, poachers have moved in, picking off game animals for bushmeat to eat themselves or to sell on to the city market, and the rivers have been overfished by a population that struggles to find food. 

Hoping that Shikabeta’s fortunes could be renewed if it were made a Game Management Area, Her Royal Highness the Chieftainess Shikabeta turned to importer/exporter Roland Norton, who established Makasa Safaris Zambia with his wife Anne, son Alister and their general manager Jaco Swanopoel. They set about replenishing the local fish stock, coordinating funding to build proper schools and medical facilities, and incentivising Shikabeta’s indigenous Soli people to let the local fauna grow. They are also employing a growing force of anti-poaching scouts – many themselves ex-poachers – to police the forestland and to stop any illegal hunting. And they are giving interest-free loans to women in the area, so that they can start their own businesses. It has been a wide-scale project of conservation and development that has, broadly, transformed the region, bringing in improved living conditions, sustainability and even prosperity. Meanwhile, as the wildlife populations, now largely unthreatened by poachers, have dramatically grown, Norton can bring in tourists on hunting safaris, which in turn brings further revenue into the local community.

Killing The Shepherd
Her Royal Highness the Chieftainess Shikabeta (right) with her advisor, Senior Princess Agness Tembo

If all this sounds idyllic, Opre also reveals problems, both old and new, that undermine the evolving ecosystem. Poaching gangs from neighbouring areas are violent, and have taken contracts out on Norton and his men. Alcoholism is endemic in Shikabeta’s male population. Land prospectors from South Africa make mischief in the area. The Chieftainesses are serially poisoned. Anti-poaching scouts are easily tempted back into their old ways, while – another paradox – those poachers who are persuaded (with financial incentives) to hand over their guns and to lay down their snares often turn instead to charcoal production which is unregulated and contributes to yet more environmental degradation. Here Shikabeta, filmed by Opre over several years of development, becomes a microcosm for showing humanity’s difficult, often messy relationship with nature and an ever-threatened ecology.

Killing The Shepherd

Accordingly, Killing The Shepherd embraces contradictions and does not, for the most part, avoid complicating its own picture. I say ‘for the most part’, because it does at times feel like a piece of propaganda for the big-game industry, allowing Norton both to criticise and to ridicule the “anti-hunting lobby” while leaving its members as unseen straw men who receive no right of reply. Another difficulty here is that, while Norton appears to have done a lot of genuine good in his new home, the salvationist advent of this ‘shepherd’ undeniably suggests the kind of white saviour narrative that has long had uncomfortable associations with Africa’s colonial history. While this aspect of the film is writ large and hard not to see – Norton is, after all, a white man who comes in to rescue an otherwise all-black community from itself – it is never directly addressed or acknowledged. There is much emphasis on the benefits that Norton’s operation has brought to Shikabeta, but rather less focus on how he is profiting from his own exploitation of the region. Still, Norton’s holistic approach to solving the problems of Shikabeta really does seem to represent a new, improved way in which foreign hunts, land management and social change can be intelligently combined to the mutual advantage of all. What is good for Makasa Safaris Zambia really does seem also to be good for the Soli.

Killing The Shepherd is beautifully shot, with plenty of drone-borne aerials of the forest to offset the more grounded interviews with the Nortons and various chieftains, scouts, teachers and nurses. Opre narrates, sometimes to camera, and himself becomes part of the story, even suggesting a way of repurposing confiscated metal snares and helping create a commercial concern for some enterprising local woman. Opre’s embeddedness in the narrative might at times make us question his objectivity towards it, in what does feel less a coolly aloof depiction of Norton’s interventions than an open celebration, even a hagiography, of the man, right down to the score by Extreme Music which swells beatifically whenever Norton is on camera. Yet Opre’s involvement in what he is filming does grant him an unusual proximity to his subjects – including the poachers – and to track closely over several years the long-term commitment required to bring about real change. In the end, that central paradox remains: the very survival of game animals, small and big, is deeply intertwined with hunting practices, whether local or, as here, outsourced, and must, in a world whose capacity to accommodate wildlife is rapidly dwindling, be managed in one way or another by the human animal. 

strap: Thomas ‘Ta’ Opre’s ecological documentary shows the delicate relationship between sustainability, development & hunting in Zambia

© Anton Bitel