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Tusk force: When Lambs Become Lions

Filmmaker Jon Kasbe earned a ringside seat in the barbaric ivory trade to make a spellbinding documentary

13 February, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Lukas in When Lambs Become Lions

Directed by Jon Kasbe
Certificate 12a

A CAR bumps down a track in the dead of night. The sounds of the African bush fill the star-studded night sky.

From the undergrowth emerges “X”, carrying the sort of flimsy plastic bag you now only find in corner shops.

But inside the bag are great riches: there are two large elephant tusks, recently cut from the face of one of these magnificent creatures.

X clambers into the car and they drive off to conduct an illegal transaction: bills are handed over, ivory exchanged, and from the opening scene of this incredible documentary, you realise quite what a ringside seat filmmaker Jon Kasbe has earned into this barbaric trade.

X is a small-time ivory dealer who acts as a go-between. He has a group of poorly paid hunters on one side, and then a mysterious buyer the viewer only hears on the other end of a mobile phone, demanding more tusks.

He is a wide boy who acts as a middle-man for poachers, demanding tusks as if he is addicted to them. He happily ignores the moral implications of how he earns his living. He says his business is his chosen way and doesn’t fret about the implications of how he earns what is to the average Kenyan a large sum.

As well as following X, we are introduced to Lukas and Asan.

Lukas is a hunter, deadly with a bow and arrow. We watch as he prepares poison from the sap of a cactus and the lethal venom from a frog – it is enough to “freeze the blood” of an elephant, he says.

Asan is a ranger who patrols the bush in a militia unit, battling the poachers. He is also waiting patiently for a wage packet that does not seem to be coming any time soon, and has a heavily pregnant wife and young family he worries about providing for.

Asan and X are cousins – and the conflict these family members find themselves in provides a narrative for Kasbe’s film.

The demise of the elephant population in Africa has attracted global concern, and this beautifully shot film underlines just how brutal the effect humans have on other creatures.

The gorgeous landscapes and the animals who roam through it just make the behaviour of the men seeking to kill even more grubby.

The Kenyan government has taken action, burning any ivory it finds, and employing teams of well-armed rangers to patrol conservation areas. They can shoot without warning, and do so. Protecting the elephants is paramount.

Kasbe has created a spellbinding piece of journalism.

How he won the confidence of his subjects shows deep background work – Kasbe stayed in the small Kenyan town that provides the backdrop for three years and during that time clearly showed his subjects his integrity in honest motives in telling this story.

And what a story: at times as exciting as any Hollywood thriller, there is also a deeper message.

By using the three protagonists, this is a wider consideration of human exploitation of mother earth, of how the need to put food on the table – and then the thirst for greater material comforts once your belly is full – creates situations where people will knowingly behave monstrously.


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