Trophy hunting: open-data exposes ethics problem
Open-source/OSINT data shows how the sector’s unethical marketing and promotion practices continue. It risks jeopardising the future of more ethical conservation efforts in South Africa.
- South African (SA) trophy hunting organisers and film productions fail to live up to ethical standards in their promotion material. Video and image footage glorifies the killing of animals and fail to meet minimum display standards
- Conservation researcher dictates that trophy hunting foots the bill for conservation efforts in South Africa. A decline of it and national bans threaten conservation efforts but the future could become more ethical if the industry changes
- Unethical promotion material risks attracting the wrong hunting audience (hunters with bows/crossbows, demand for canned hunting). It stymies advancements towards more ethical practices
- Trophy Hunting film production companies (like African Safari Films) fail in their ethical responsibility by promoting provoking images and videos
- Prices dropped during the pandemic. The bargaining power now lies with the hunting clients, increasing the risk for illegal/borderline legal hunting practices
This is part 1 of a series of investigative journalism about the complex topic of trophy hunting in South Africa
Trump Jr is often quoted as a poster child for the global trophy hunting industry. But his appearance raises ethical questions from the start. There are many images of him in a boastful pose next to or over a killed animal. Plenty of these images are online and sparked outrage among those objecting to the ethics of trophy hunting (includes myself). Mia Farrow, an American actress, posted some of these images again in 2019.
The British tabloid press identifies trophy hunting as a prime target. Readers naturally have an ethical antiparty to seeing killed animals paraded on images. By showing these violent images and the hunters it causes outrage and sell its tabloid journalism (periodically, it picks up on the topic like in recent weeks).
In South Africa, hunting safaris pay for a significant share of conservation efforts. But misleading and unethical marketing of trophy hunting (as well as wrong portrayal by the tabloid media) is parlous for establishing more ethical guidelines.
Adam Hart, a professor of science communication at the University of Gloucestershire and conservation expert told me that the data and scientific evidence backs up the narrative that, in South African, trophy hunting foots the bill for conservation (so stress his colleagues).
Hart says, personally, he objects to the killing for ethical reasons. But for the bigger purpose of conservation, the statistics back the sales of hunting. Hunting, he says, nearly never threatens species, he says. The tabloid press usually gets its wrong, he adds.
“Hunted species are nearly never threatened and the model is hard to replace with other forms of tourism”, Adam Hart, professor of science communication at the University of Gloucestershire
Much of the material for promotion and PR (and images then used by the tabloid press to infuriate readers in the UK) comes from film and photo production firms. This analysis examined them in detail.
Let’s start with Trump Jr, who was never shy to share his affection for the killing trade over the past decade: “I hunt a lot. Love it. My fav pastime w fishing. Love sheep & Africa hunts but really anytime I can get in2 the woods is good”. In 2019, he used his diplomatic connection to avoid charges for hunting in Mongolia. For Propublica, Kathleen Clark, a professor specializing in legal ethics at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law questioned the ethics behind it and wondered “what the chances are the Mongolian government would’ve done any of that to someone who wasn’t the son of the United States’ president”.
Such images (and videos) are toxic and understandably disturbing for many who love animals (including me). They also miss showing South Africa’s dependence on hunting: “Between 9,000 and 12,000 properties were redeveloped into wildlife ranching”, Hart says. Wildlife ranching is a term used to describe the managing of vast pieces of land. These properties have a so-called ‘carrying capacity. In the case of oversupply, owners have a few options. Earning money for habitat managing, conservation and survival by offering hunts is one. Next to ecotourism (which is growing slowly), they can generate income by inviting hunters to hunt so-called ‘surplus animals’.
But the dependency on mostly foreign hunters coming to South Africa, also help to shift ethical boundaries in the wrong direction. Illegal and ethically-questionable trophy hunting, yet perhaps by a small group of hunters, is set to continue.
The questions we will forensically analyse here has to do with evaluating the marketing and promotional material (not trophy hunting per see):
Where does disturbing trophy hunting footage come from?
Who takes ownership of them
How may they harm the industry and conservation?
Analysing open-source video/image evidence
Who posted the images of Trump Junior? Africanproductions.co.za features a number of images showing the young Trump in full hunting gear. Judging by its traffic and partnerships listed, the website owner (who also maintains other websites) is among the most popular trophy hunting film productions in South Africa (there are others, but this one of the biggest).
The success stems from a tight relationship with safari hunting organisers and (likely) an affiliate model with the top safaris. Some of them breaking ethical rules, as the videos prove.
Morgan Harris’s efforts started in 2010. Today, his trophy hunting filming business seems to be buzzing. As calls for trophy import bans increased. Many hunters find it alluring how videos may replace the hassle with export restrictions of their ‘trophies’. Our research shows that more hunters get used to social media and want to present (often disturbing) images and videos online.
It makes the analysis of firms like African Safari Films more important. For journalists and investigators, open-source intelligence from online images and videos they share provide a good starting point.
Trophy hunting and niche businesses (like the filming and promotion) is big business but Covid-19 affected the whole sector. Prices for hunts collapses, according to sales offerings that we witnessed online. The hunting sector tries desperately to find clients abroad to revive it. This could lead to offering illegal practice, some think.
“I saw one offering, a pair of giraffes for about £275”, @XposeTrophyHunt tells me. “They’re overstocked on their small reserves and are basically culling some species and selling the meat. The game breeders are stuck with too many animals and no buyers, so they’re forced to basically give the animals away”.
“That’s why they’re desperate to get people back and it makes sense that the filmmakers are suffering too and trying to come up with their own solutions”.
@XposeTrophyHunt explains how the hunting business worked before the pandemic: “Say I own a hunting safari, I have many years of experience, but I don’t own any land I rely on my concession and taking my clients to other peoples’ reserves. I do it, though, via living from client to client, so I’m under a bit of pressure to make sure each client gets what he wants. I might then be tempted to do a bit of skulduggery, like luring a lion out of a park. There are many professional hunters (PH) like this. Now, if I’m really a bad egg, I use my knowledge to get involved in a bit of poaching and trafficking, too. There are quite a few that have been caught getting involved in poaching. But most will stick to a few unethical tricks just to make sure their clients get what they want and leave very happy”.
2020 and 2021
There is a steady stream of new videos by filmmakers, we find. New trophy hunting videos by Harris’s crew emerge every other week.
Support for trophy hunting is waiting. Some government call for a ban, even though it’s not their turn to make the call (the UK consider import bans). Some scientists have suffered abuse. Hart also reports that he was accused of working for the trophy hunting lobby.
Why is the filming business growing? Clients use videos and images as a keepsake. They use them to boast to their online friends and a way to keep their hunts as a souvenir without running into illegal territory of smuggling trophies out of South Africa.
But there are also risks. Now with trophy hunting prices down, online promotions of hunting safaris online invite for ‘low budget hunts’, risking a flood of new hunters coming to Africa. What was originally only sold to high-value individuals, organisers lure budget hunters with ‘financing schemes’ allowing “anyone to afford it”, HuntingAfrica posted.
Experts say nearly all species are available for trophy hunting, which could complicate oversight and increase the use of ‘canned hunting’ (investigations in the past found that some farm owner were charged with the offence of animal cruelty).
For those working to expose trophy hunting issues, the filming and photo material hold important open data.
What does it cost to have the hunts filmed? Prices dropping and Hunters who spend thousands of dollars on the hunt itself may consider a few hundred dollars for filming and editing a bargain.
We also often see films used for promotional purposes (such as in this case where the host promotes OLIGHT products). Promoting products on the side, we see a lot. Video producers offer a ‘10% discount on all OLIGHT products’. Ohlight is a Chinese/international company selling light and laser attachments, that can also be mounted on firearms.
Morgan Harris is the owner of several websites, including African Safari Films. We find a number of businesses connected to him. What do we know about Harris?
The best marketing for his filming business are his YouTube videos. The channel is popular, featuring nearly 100 videos. There is also significant traffic. Since inception in 2017, the channel garnered 2.8 million views.
Harris’s Facebook profile is openly accessible. A post featuring hunting statistics publicised by the professional lobbying group Professional Hunter Association South Africa features his as a comment. Harris runs some of his business ventures with his wife, a Video Editor Photographer.
Connections to safari organisers with poor ethics
Harris maintains connections with British safari organiser and guide Carl Knight. Knight runs a firm called ‘TakeAimSafari’, where he features his own images. Harris’s business shot videos for clients of Knight’s safari outfit. Over the past two years, the tabloid press zoomed in on Knights and his trophy hunting.
Knight’s promotion campaigns during Covid and portrayal of animal stocks to have grown ‘plentiful’ levels during the pandemic, is unethical and sends the wrong signals. The tabloid press attacked him for it. The promotion is questionable, though, the fact that animal stocks grown is correct.
Knight’s safari website was down in January (we archived it here) but is life again now.
The media narrative
Major daily newspapers front-page stories in the tabloid press including the Sun, and Sunday People, Daily Mail, Metro, and Mirror wrote about Knight’s business in the past years (such as in 2019). Knight told MailOnline he hasn’t broken any laws, which is likely true. But his images and videos did grave damage, nonetheless.
Where does the footage live online? OSINT tool Checkusernames.com, suggests take_aim_safaris, as well as other safari brands, have now all a broad online footprint.
A compilation video example was posted in 2019, showing a number of the Big African Five killed and suffer live on camera. As we see in the video/screenshot below, Knight is using bait to lure the lions to where his clients can shoot them. It’s considered unfair hunting practice. Such practice is considered illegal in many places in North America, and even if not illegal in some places in South Africa, it is considered highly unethical (often it’s used for Leopards, the New York Times wrote in 2015).
Other safari hunters
The link between safari hunting organisers and AfricanProductions is tight as the latter acts as a promotional device. One ‘collaborator’ is PJsafaris.com. Its gallery features hundreds of images. A images show killed elephants. One image shows hunters with a big tusker, a controversial act (hunted relentlessly across the continent since the late 1800s, it is estimated that fewer than 30 big tuskers remain in the whole of Africa out of a total elephant population now numbering fewer than 400,000, Mongabay reported).
PJ Safari’s Instagram account advertises that Covid-19 ‘offer perfect conditions to hunt’, with an elephant in the background.
In another post on Jan 31, the marketing boasts with the kill of another large elephant bull: “Our First Safari for 2021 could not start any better. After searching for 4 days and spotting [a] couple 100’s of Females, Calves and young Bulls we finally came across this old Bull Elephant. After a 14km stalk, we caught up to him again. PJ Safaris offers a great Elephant Hunting Experience in our Exclusive Hunting area in the Limpopo Valley”.
@XposeTrophyHunt says the pandemic has a profound impact on the whole industry: “Particularly in South Africa, where most animals come from game breeders. The small reserves are offering hunting to local hunters [now] for next to nothing”.
Other connections Harris maintains
Among the gallery images of Harris’s film and photo productions, one person features again and again. His distinct features include a black cowboy hat. We find him in Harri’s facebook address book under ‘Colorado Buck’, who lives in South Glory, Texas. Colorado Buck is a great fan of Trump Jr and his dad.
Beyond what we visually see from the YouTube videos on AfricanSafariFilm’s YouTube channel, there is additional data. A video from three weeks ago on a “CAPE BUFFALO Hunt in South Africa” contains EXIF data (same as the channel). Although not much, some of the tags offer additional insight into associated profiles.
We can use Mattw’s tool on YouTube metadata to reveal relevant tags that are hidden. Apart from Harris, the owner of AfricanSafariFilms, noteworthy tags include:
Johan Calitz: a prominent elephant hunter, who used to hunt (may still do) for elephant ivory. “Safaris Elephant trophies consistently featured between two and three of the five biggest Elephant taken in Botswana annually, with the biggest weighing in at 104 pounds”, his output is described here some years ago. In a book/essay here, he advocates the potential to bring back the ‘good old days’ of ivory tusk hunting — highly questionable from an ethical perspective as it fits into the same category as poaching).
Wintershoek (a safari organiser/farm): In 2014, after a large crowd of rhinos were moved to various ‘safe’ destinations, one location was exposed to be the Wintershoek farm. Its owner, Wian van der Linde complained about how it exposes the animals to hunters/poachers. Van der Linde is listed among key contacts on the hunting safari website.
Ivan Carter (promotor of hunting benefits for conservation — Carter’s Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance donated to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), which makes money from trophy hunting);
Hunting South Africa (hunting Safaris is found to encourage controversial bow hunting, as online images show);
African sun productions (another video production biz. Owner Martin Müller produced hunting videos for many years) and Mark Sullivan. Sullivan was denied access to the SCI hunting conference because, as commentators familiar with it say, hosts felt he didn't meet the requirements for hunting ethics”.
Johan Calitz: the creator of Johan Calitz Safaris Ltd, founded in 1987 in Botswana. In 2014, the business claimed to employ 180 people. In 2020, its promotion material states that the company will lead in offering elephant hunting in Botswana. The country just lifted a ban on elephant hunting. While critics of the ban pointed out that restriction caused problems to small farmers (who benefit from hunting by selling stock), the lifting of the ban could trigger an “angry reaction from conservationists”, who believe the move is political and that it could damage the country’s international reputation for conservation and affect its revenues from tourism, the second-largest source of foreign income after diamond mining (BBC).
There are a number of YouTube channels and images feeds. We don't have time to analyse them all here. You can do your own analysis.
However, one other worth highlighting is called Shawu Productions. It gained 15 million views on its YouTube channel and is run by Coenie Shawu (it is also present on Facebook). It’s linked to Africansafariphoto, which also makes videos and photos, like the one of the two hunters who killed a hippo. See how tiers run down the animal's cheek. Unlike AfricanSafariFilm, we see that here hunters’ faces are blurred out.
Shawu production sells merchandise, too (including cups and phone covers).
Another large trophy hunting film production is called ‘In The Zone Media (ITZ)’. Its YouTube channels started in 2015 and received half a million views. The website doesn't display any personal details of owners or a production team. ITZ’s Facebook and Youtube accounts states merely an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), allegedly belonging to Dean Gerald Dobrowsky, that leads to a Facebook page.
There isn't much of a guide what promotional hunting material should or should not look like. But there are some guidelines by SCI’s Convention Committee and more recently by HSCF (Houston Safari Club Foundation) on what displays footage should not portray. It provides us with a starting point.
We can already see some issues with the images portraying Carl Knight and others, who fail to “show proper respect to animals” by sitting on them or using them as a couch (raising also questions on proper handing after the kill).
Zooming in on the videos posted by AfricanSafariFilms on its YouTube channel over the past 12 months, we find a number of violations:
The Marketing Machine
Why is Harris such an important element to promote trophy hunting? According to a number of accounts, he was involved in the filming of the killing of a big tusker, a tragedy for biodiversity and detrimental for the species, as critics say. There are only a handful still alive and every kills gets these elephants closer to extinction, some said.
Harris refused to give out the identity of the shooter, a Berlin-based hunter. Commentators later found and verified the profile of Mr Rainer Schorr. Schorr is a passionate hunter and founder and owner of PRS Family Trust GmbH, a big asset management firm in Berlin.
Wildlife group PETA rewarded anyone to ID the hunter. OSINT and open data are important for journalists and investigators to monitor illegal practices.
Eventually, a former friend of his identified Schorr to be the hunter. We can re-run a facial comparison and confirm how well the images correlate. Users have created a separate Facebook page called Shame-Rainer-Schorr.
Harris Facebook profile also features other connection (another avenue to investigate how the South African trophy hunting network connects). One is Danie Rossouw, an entrepreneur who sells hunting bows. As mentioned before, bows raise big ethical questions for big game hunting and the suffering animals have to endure.
African Safari Films also engages in collaborations with outfitters and other businesses. On Facebook, is actively seeking new outfitter business partners.
The memories of the killing of Cecil the lion is still fresh. The animal was killed by Walter Palmer, an Eden Prairie, Minneapolis based dentist at the RBD praxis. In the aftermath, Palmer’s had his vacation home vandalised. Last year, he went hunting again, killing a ram. Palmer has previously been convicted of fish and game violations in Minnesota for killing a bear. These examples are outrageous. If it fails to deal with these ethical perils, the industry may risks further bans, miss out on funding and future business opportunities.
After Cecile (and later her cup, killed two years later), many, including the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology called for a no-hunting zone around Zimbabwe’s Hwange Park. Zimbabwe had strict hunting laws, (especially for lions and bow hunting).
The marketing machine for trophy hunting continues with the online videos and images. For journalists, the footage can be a good source to begin an investigation.
For most African countries with an active trophy hunting industry (in South Africa: Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia) the industry account for a vast share of income — one study estimated African trophy hunting is worth in excess of $200m (£130m) a year. This means it cannot just be banned. Instead, there should be more attention on how to make it as ethical as possible (while leaving it up to the local African governments to decide how to treat it).
For part 1, we looked at the marketing machine behind the trophy hunting business, the film producers that lurk in the background. The examination of promotional material is vital to understand why this business keeps generating demand for unethical trophy hunting practices.
The case of Merelize van der Merwe (who killed of a giraffe as a Valentine’s gift) is certainly provoking. The coverage by the tabloid press was negative, understandable. But the story was told in the wrong way. Merelize’s boasting on her Facebook page (getting her 2,700 likes) and other social media presence angers those with an ethical mindset. Her own portrayal and that of the media lacked integrity for the difficult situation trophy hunting and local South African property owners are in. It is these examples that jeopardize conservation efforts as it turns a whole developed western world against hunting that is the basis of many lives in South Africa. They also stall progress in advancing more ethical income streams, such as ecotourism.
In short, journalists have to be extremely selective and knowledgeable to report on trophy hunting. As Professor Adam Hart says, trophy hunting is complex.
“A lot of trophy photos that you see might in fact be meat hunts or whatever so that motivation is quite complicated. I think a lot of people mind the killing. What they see is wildlife being killed and what they think is that that wildlife is threatened because that’s what the media are telling them. But actually, we can’t find a single example of any trophy hunted species that are being threatened by hunting”.
This means trophy hunting is still a problem and journalists must try harder to be selective in how they cover the topic (and not follow the route of the tabloid press). Open-source intelligence analysis makes it possible to identify and verify if there is actually something that is really going wrong.