The Weekend's TV: Ask questions first and shoot later
Louis Theroux's African Hunting Holiday, Sun BBC2; Tiger – Spy In The Jungle, Sun BBC1
Monday 07 April 2008
In Louis Theroux's African Hunting Holiday, several endangered species came face to face with a famously invasive one: the American tourist. Louis, one of television's foremost human zoologists, was on the trail of sports hunters: enthusiasts who love to track down the world's rarer animals, kill them and mount their heads on the garage wall. Not that there's a huge amount of tracking involved these days, because the real point of Theroux's film was the place where the hunting takes place: a South African game farm, a free-range wildlife supermarket at which pretty much anything is available, provided your credit-card limit will match the price tag. A rhino will set you back anything from $50,000 to $100,000, which was a bit beyond the budget for Paul and his wife, Anne- Marie, so Paul settled instead for a kudu, a zebra and possibly – oh, go on, spoil yourself, Paul – a baboon. And just as in the shirtier kind of souvenir shop, you had better take care that you didn't damage the stock while you were browsing. "Once it's wounded, and we've picked up blood, then it must be paid for," explained Paul's hunting guide, after Paul had narrowly missed a nearby kudu.
I don't know what shape your prejudices are, in but mine twitch a bit at the sight of a white South African with a shotgun and a pair of safari shorts. So the first corrective surprise of the film was how straightforward most of the locals were about the enterprise they were involved in. A couple of them looked as if they'd have been more than happy to mount Louis's head on a mahogany board, but the majority turned out to have a very ambiguous attitude to the crop they were helping to harvest. Lolly, who didn't hunt himself, wouldn't have shooting on his game farm because the noise stressed the animals too much, and he became visibly fretful when it looked as if one American visitor had only wounded the animal he was aiming at. Even Piet, who bred lions and other animals simply so that overweight truckers from the Midwest could get a testosterone surge, turned out to be a closeted environmentalist. And all of them made the incontrovertible point that no one who eats industrially produced meat can really claim a moral advantage over them.
There isn't a lot of skill involved in what Louis described as "hunting in a can". The game-farm managers set up an all-you-can-eat buffet for the animals in the middle of the bush and then hide the hunters away next to the salad bar. The only way it could be made simpler would be if the animals were loaded on to a conveyor belt and trundled past the gun barrels so the tourists didn't even need to aim. All you need to bring with you is the desire to pull the trigger. Anne- Marie, a woman whose only previous hunting expeditions had been on the cosmetic counters at Wal-Mart, felt obliged to try out her husband's hobby and bagged a small antelope with a crossbow. Paul was orgasmically happy about this. "Lots of blood!" he hissed excitedly, "Lots of blood! Great shot!", though Anne- Marie herself looked distinctly queasy once the adrenalin rush had passed.
Louis drew a bead on a small warthog but was courageous enough to be thought a wimp by the man next to him and left the beast to die another day. And though I found his ersatz innocence infuriating on his last outing to San Quentin prison, it delivered a real pay-off here, after his ethical nagging finally made Piet explode. "We are creating better and better rhinos," Piet said furiously about his breeding programme. "We have a rhino bull now of three and a half years... he has a 22-inch horn! It's unbelievable! Because we're being paid per inch. Understand? It's a different perspective. Africa does not have computers and people who are disciplined, who give it a chance. It's fucked! Because we chop down everything and we eat everything and this is a chance to make money out of what is here!" Exploitation, in other words, could have an ecological upside. It may not have been wise of Piet – in public-relations terms, anyway – to add that he hated "fucking elephants" because they kill all the nice trees, but after all the carefully managed wilderness, we saw his maddened charge, and it was rather thrilling.
Tiger – Spy in the Jungle continues to remind us that wild animals aren't always exemplary when it comes to humane dispatch. This week's episode featured a tiger that half-killed an antelope and then handed it over to her cub to play with for a while, as a way of honing its hunting skills; given a choice, I think it might have opted for a crossbow through the heart. And I think Piet should watch to get a new perspective on elephants, who turn out to make amazingly good cameramen.
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