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Living with elephant killers: Experiences of a filmmaker

Sunday December 15 2019

poaching of elecphants

Jon Kasbe filming his film "When Lambs Become Lions" in Kenya. He spent three and a half years in northern Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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The poachers single out an elephant and build its profile over a period of time.

They investigate if it is male or female; if it has calves; its approximate age, and how big its tusks are.

Once satisfied that it is a good target, they estimate how much poison can kill it. That poison is meticulously prepared then applied on arrowheads that are shot into the jumbo’s body at the opportune time.

Then the poachers wait for eight to 12 hours for the poison to take effect, tracking the subdued beast as it wages its last battle.

Loud trumpeting will tell them that the elephant is on its last minutes and they will pounce, hiving off the tusks before rangers rush to the scene.

Imagine being allowed to film all that, and to even interview the poachers on their motivations for the activity.


It worked for 29-year-old Australia-born filmmaker Jon Kasbe, who is currently based in New York, US.


Kasbe spent three and a half years in northern Kenya, managing to win the trust of the poachers so much that they allowed him to join them in at least 10 hunting missions — filming the goings-on in some of those trips.

He also found a way of talking to one of the rangers charged with protecting wildlife in the region.

The result of his efforts, with the help of other videographers he came with, was about 700 hours of video recording, which was later condensed into a 74-minute documentary that is currently being screened across the United States.

Titled "When Lambs Become Lions", its latest screening was on Friday at two venues: The Landmarks West End Cinema in Washington, DC and at the Media Arts Center in California. Its next screening is at the Aperture Cinema in North Carolina on December 27.

Screening across the US began in November and a number of publications have since reviewed the documentary, including the New York Times, Forbes, Hollywood Reporter, and Variety.

Most of the reviewers agree that the documentary told the story of poachers without judging them.


Speaking to Lifestyle from the US on Thursday, Kasbe said the film will be screened in Kenya early next year.

“We haven’t set a date for Kenyan screening but we’re aiming for early 2020. And the reason we haven’t done it yet is that we are planning on partnering with local organisations to create a local campaign and hopefully use the film to start the conversation between rangers, poachers and leaders in the conservation industry. That’s important to us,” he said on phone.

He added that they are also being cautious lest they endanger the lives of the men whose stories they captured on camera, despite the fact that their identities were concealed and that a large portions of their activities were redacted.

“We are making sure that we are not bringing it there (Kenya) until they are comfortable with us screening it there. And that’s why we’ve been very careful about the timing and the potential impact,” said Kasbe.

The persons filmed have watched it in a private screening in Kenya, he said.

“The digital release of the documentary is scheduled for February 25 and it will be available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft Xbox and others,” he added.


The film was first aired at Tribeca Film Festival (New York) in April 2018, where it took the top prize in the Best Documentary Editing category.

Its title is from a saying Kasbe had heard in Kenya, that an empty stomach (or lack of resources) will turn many lambs into lions.

One of the film’s selling points is that unlike a normal documentary with a voice over and all, this one unveils like a narrative.

“We didn’t want this film to feel like a documentary. I’m actually not a big documentary fan. I generally find them a little bit boring and just distant, whereas narrative films always pull me in,” he told a gathering of camera enthusiasts in New Jersey, US, in June 2018.



In the documentary, emotions come out raw. Moments unravel unfiltered, unexpected, unmediated — like life does.

To protect the men in the film, the exact locations of their activities are not revealed, and neither are their real names.

The main people in the story are identified as X, a poacher, Lukas, his partner in the vice, and Asan, a game ranger who incidentally is X’s cousin.

X says he comes from a generation of elephant hunters. At some point in the film, he says that as his children eat food bought from proceeds of poaching, the “curse” is passed on to them.

The filmmaker captures some of the exploits of X and Lukas as poachers. In the trailers released, X says he has killed 16 elephants.

Lakini nikiwa na team yangu, ukiongeza hiyo kumi na sita, ni arobaine (with my team, add to that 16 and the total is 40),” says X, with little emotion on his face.

Kasbe says he chose from the very start not to film the scenes where an elephant was being finished off.

“In terms of actually filming a kill, no; I intentionally chose not to do that,” he told in May 2018.

He further told Forbes in November that the reason for leaving out the killing scenes was to ensure focus remained where he thought it should: the ripple effects of poaching.


He added to Forbes that the death of an elephant was not as he had imagined before.

“I thought it would be a very visceral, violent death. In reality, it was a very slow, patient, meticulous process. Poachers would spend a week just creating the poison for the elephant and it’s different for each animal,” he told the publication.

X is a black market ivory trader, a small-scale tusks dealer. What drew Kasbe to him is his unapologetic attitude towards poaching, and his insistence that he cannot kill people, but he has no qualms ending an elephant’s life.

Another prominent character in the story is Asan, a ranger who is employed at a local conservancy to keep poachers at bay. Asan was at one time also a poacher.

In one of the scenes, Asan says: “Hunter na ranger unajua ni kitu kimoja kwa sababu hunter naye anawinda hii mnyama, na ranger anawinda huyu mwenye anawinda (The hunter and the ranger are the same thing because one is after the animal while the other is after the person hunting the animal).”

Another scene in the documentary depicts the 2016 burning of Ivory, presided over by President Uhuru Kenyatta, which Mr Kasbe attended.

The film also captures scenes where poachers are arrested and the raw dialogues that emerge.

Kasbe admits that there were “juicy” scenes captured on camera that the subjects later asked him to delete, and he obliged because he wanted to maintain that relationship.

“These things could have made the film better, more commercial, more exciting — things that in my mind I think the film needed to work,” he told the New Jersey gathering.


Australia, 1990

Jon Kasbe is born in December 1990 to missionary parents who are committed on changing the world. His father is Indian; his mother Australian.

The parents keep travelling to various points of the world to take part in building of schools and other volunteer work.

“I spent the first 15 years of my life travelling all over the world doing missions. I spent a lot of time in India, Australia, Kenya and Serbia,” Kasbe told Lifestyle.

He added that their stays in Kenya were brief, not going for more than six months at a time.

When Kasbe was 12 years old, an incident happened at the home of his paternal grandfather based in India: at some point he disagreed with a group that doused him with petrol and tried to set him ablaze, only for police to save him.

“I was just a young kid at that time. I was hearing this news through my parents and I didn’t know what to do. But I felt like something needed to be done to kind of let people know what happened,” he told in December 2018.

“So I took all my savings, raised as much money as I could and bought a camera; then I flew to India and made a little documentary about what had happened. And that’s kind of what sparked it for me,” he added.

His family was not very welcoming of his choice of going into films but, given his determination, they later let him be.


Northern Kenya, 2014-2017

Kasbe comes to Kenya for the "When Lambs Become Lions" documentary on the recommendation of his friends in the country.

He had shot three short films in Kenya before, and his friends believe this one on poaching will be a gamechanger.

Before travelling to Kenya, he used fundraising platform Kickstarter to raise about $38,000 (Sh3,864,847) that he spent creating a presentation that he later showed to film companies in the US in a bid to get funding for the project.

He finally secured sponsorship from a company called Fusion. “They came on as our main financial backers and they really made it all possible,” Kasbe told the New Jersey gathering of June 2018.

With that, he travelled to Kenya for the project. For many days prior, he had been talking to X on phone, and this offered a perfect bond going forward.

He spent about seven months living the lives of the men he later filmed. He prepared meals with them, went for walks with them, went to hunts with them among other activities.

“They welcomed me into their lives as a friend. And that became the foundation where the whole film was built upon,” he told Lifestyle.

Only when everyone was sure of the other’s intentions that he started filming. He banked on his camera, and wireless microphones that the men were required to have every time they went out.

“Once the cameras came out, they were so used to me being in there,” he told the June 2018 forum.


Language was a big issue. He tried learning Swahili “and was getting kind of decent at it”, as he told the forum.

“I was able to understand what being said. But I realised very quickly the characters — X and Lukas, the two poachers — hated it. They were like, ‘When you can understand what is being said and we’re doing these deals and people realise you are figuring it out, it freaks them out and they want you to leave,’” he said.

“So they were like, ‘Act like you don’t understand anything.’ And that’s the best route to use to get the moments filmed. So I very quickly took the opposite approach and it worked a lot better,” added Kasbe.

At times, he would use a fixer to listen real-time to what was being said on the microphones of the men he was tracking to translate.

“Like 40 per cent of the time, I had a fixer that was translating things to me, but the 60 per cent of the time that I didn’t, I found myself working way, way harder,” he said.

While filming, there are also moments when tension built up, when rangers and poachers faced off.

He says he was not very scared when this happened because he was always with locals who understood the terrain. His camera also gave him confidence.

“There is something about being behind a camera that changes that and gives you a weird shield of confidence. It’s hard to explain,” he told in May 2018.


There were also moments when they disagreed and the local men would eject him.

That was because Kasbe was not ready to pay them a single penny for participating in the project.

“There were definitely points where they said, ‘You don’t care about us; you don’t love us. If you’re not willing to pay for this, you clearly don’t care about us at all.’ And then they would quit and they went away. I wouldn’t hear from them for two weeks, four weeks, six weeks,” he told in 2018.

But somehow, they could later make up and continue with the project.

Occasionally, after about five months in Kenya, Kasbe would fly back to the US to offload the recorded content and to consult with the editors of the project.

The shooting took long enough for the poacher identified as X to convert into a ranger. Kasbe told Lifestyle that Lukas, his aide, has since died of a terminal disease.


New York, December 2019

Jon Kasbe believes the way the Kenyan government views poaching needs a relook.

During his stay in Kenya, he told Lifestyle, he came to realise that the story of poachers and rangers is not entirely a “bad guys” versus “good guys” affair.

“There is a complex space in between the two sides, and that complex space is the reality. And that grey space was really our priority, because (films) we were seeing were kind of depicting these two sides as being against each other.

But what I was hearing from my friends, my local Kenyan friends, was that these sides are interchangeable,” he told Lifestyle on phone.

One of his observations is that the economic situation of most game rangers is wanting, as they are often paid peanuts and sometimes go for long without receiving a salary.

The depiction of that scenario in his film, also that the families living around national parks have age-old beliefs around poaching, is what he believes has given the documentary a great appeal for Western viewers.

“Western audiences are liking it because they’re not used to seeing that story. It’s a much more complicated story. The film is a lot less satisfying in a lot of ways because it shows you a reality that you can’t just throw money at to fix,” he says.


“The film doesn’t give you easy answers, and that is the reality we found by being there. So there’s not an easy answer to the problem. It’s extremely complicated and it involves understanding the culture and understanding the men and the women that have been living in there,” he adds.

He told in 2018 the film has no “clear call to action at the end”.

“We’re not necessarily trying to change the situation. We didn’t go through this process and come out with a solution,” he noted.

His parting shot to Lifestyle: “Right now, according to the Kenyan law, the solution is just killing poachers; that’s it. And it’s also causing a lot of rangers to be killed as well.

And I just think there are more creative solutions to this. And I think it’s going to come locally as well.”