Jon Kasbe: “These guys are risking death.”

American film-maker Jon Kasbe on poaching, sharing stories, and the need to tackle poverty
By Graeme Green
Jon Kasbe is an Emmy-award-winning director, cinematographer and editor, known for his films including Nascent, A Beautiful Waste and Heartbeats Of Fiji. His first feature film, When Lambs Become Lions, looks at poaching in northern Kenya from both the rangers’ and the poachers’ perspective.

Was it dangerous making When Lambs Become Lions?

Definitely. Going on hunts with the poachers was very scary and didn’t feel safe. Especially when we ran into the rangers, it was terrifying.

But even scarier was being out with the rangers for months at the time. At three in the morning, they can get called into a live gun battle and you have no idea what’s going on. Often, they’re not well-equipped. They have guns that don’t work and they’re wearing sandals. You realize that death is the only outcome out here. It feels like that’s what’s waiting for them in that situation. One or two rangers died each year while I was out in Kenya.

Were you keen to show both sides of the poaching issue?

Yes. I felt like the side of the poachers was always missing in the conversation. I decided: “Let’s hear this perspective we haven’t heard before and try to understand why they’re making the choices they make.” I quickly found that the sides are very interconnected and that you can’t look at one without the other.

Poaching’s a strange situation where often the people on both sides, rangers and poachers, are poor people with few opportunities who are fighting against each other.

It is. It doesn’t really feel like either side wants to be fighting against the other. At the end of the day, they all go back to a very similar situation, where no one feels like they are coming out on top or winning.

The big money from ivory and other types of poaching goes to the gangs, traffickers and international traders. Are the local people that do the hunting making much money from it?

They’re living day-to-day. They’re doing probably two to three kills a year, at two grand each, so they’re having these moments when they’re getting quite a lot of money in a short amount of time. They take care of their basic needs. They usually pay their debts. They also feel like rock stars for a moment. They can go and celebrate. They can drink and go to a club and show their status but it rarely lasts beyond a few days.

There would still be an ivory trade, because gangs and traffickers would still want an ivory supply. But do you think local people would hunt elephants less if there were other opportunities?

Yes, I think they would. These guys are risking death to do this. The guys that are out there killing the elephant are not getting paid enough to make it worth death.

These guys aren’t coming out rich from doing this. It’s not like they kill an elephant and make a million bucks, and then they’re set for the rest of their life. People selling the ivory to the buyers and then the people in China are the ones making huge amounts of money, but the guys on the ground aren’t becoming rich. They’re risking their lives to just get by.

Poachers said that if rangers were paid consistently, fairly and given the tools they needed to do their jobs, they would turn. They would go and join them.

With huge profits driving the illegal wildlife trade, it seems no amount of rangers can stop poaching altogether. What do you think the solution is? Is it about tackling the demand?

I don’t know. The ivory burn is a great example of how complicated that situation is. The Kenyan president is burning the ivory to try to destroy the demand, and a lot of people look at that and it always seems so much money that could be used to protect the living creatures and pay the rangers. I don’t feel it’s my place to say which is right or wrong – I see both sides of it.

A lot of solutions that are being tried are created by people from the outside who don’t necessarily understand the intricacies of the people living at the centre of it. The main thing I came out of this with is that the solutions are going to have to come locally. They’re not going to come from the outside. Having a local perspective from people who grew up in these communities and understand what life is like is crucial to finding solutions that work. There are people locally who are coming up with great solutions and who understand the community and the people and the culture. But it’s going to take a lot of time.

Do you have an example?

Yes. There’s a woman in Kenya, whose name is Josephine, who’s dedicated her life to going out to confront poachers and turn them into rangers, and then creating relationships and a system to check up on them and make sure they’re getting paid, make sure they have food, make sure that they’re not turning back to that way of life.

Most of the people who kill these elephants are doing it when they feel that’s the only option left. The rangers aren’t always getting paid and they look at the outsiders, who are white, that are running these corporations that aren’t paying them. When they see that and when they also see the people who are enjoying these animals and benefitting from them with tourism that are also white, it becomes a racial issue. It becomes really complex. It’s, like, “Why are we protecting our heritage when we can’t feed our kids? For these outsiders? How does this make any sense?” When you dig in and realise how racial and cultural it is, it slowly starts to make sense.

Does poverty need to be tackled to reduce poaching?

Yes, definitely. The first thing is education. These guys in the communities in Kenya feel like they have two options: poaching or protecting. A lot of them aren’t going through school, so they don’t feel they have skills outside what their fathers taught them, which is how to track and kill elephants. That goes both ways – rangers often had fathers who poached. They understand the animals in a deep way, so they’re perfect to protect them.

But outside of those two things, they don’t feel they have other options. Look at the other things you can do in these communities: you can make money if you set up a fruit stand or you borrow a motorcycle and get make a US dollar a day. But you’re not able to feed your family on that.

There needs to be an infrastructure around education.

Is film-making for you about having a message?

No, it’s not. For me, filmmaking is an effort to try to understand a person or community, being a sponge and listening to someone from a different place who has a different perspective. It’s about doing everything I can to embrace that and share what I feel has value and is meaningful.

I try as much as possible to not make it about me. I am a lot less interested in me that I am in other people.

Has technology made it easier to make films? 

Significantly. During this film, I was directing and shooting and producing and running audio all myself, using a Sony FS5 camera. It’s a piece of technology that’s so small, so light, and the battery lasts so long and the SD cards can handle so much media, so it allowed me to shoot for days without electricity.

It’s amazing what a tiny camera can do. It’s really incredible and exciting how affordable and accessible cameras are now. It’s giving everyone a chance to show their perspective, which adds to the collective consciousness.

Jon Kasbe

What else do you need, apart from gear?

You need to have a genuine curiosity. You have to be naturally someone that pays attention and you have to be willing to let go of your perspective, which sounds simple, but it’s really hard to do. It’s about stepping away, being open and letting the characters and the world speak to you.

Stills taken from the Film When Lambs Become Lions.

Jon Kasbe’s website:

When Lambs Become Lions is currently available on demand: When Lambs Become Lions.

For more on When Lambs Become Lions, see:

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist:

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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