Northern Kenya is a very dangerous place for elephants. Hell, maybe there’s no safe place on Earth for an animal whose front teeth are worth more on the black market than my whole body, but Northern Kenya is particularly deadly ground. Every day, the elephants are stalked by poachers, who in turn are pursued by park rangers. But it’s hardly a fair fight when the park rangers haven’t been paid by the government for months, while the poachers stand to make more from one elephant than the rangers have made in the past year.
When Lambs Become Lions documents the ongoing battle between poachers and rangers from a very interesting perspective: it follows two family members on opposite sides of the fight and shoots the heart of the action, as poachers pursue elephants and as rangers pursue poachers. Because of its dual focus, When Lambs Become Lions manages not to take sides or judge these relatives as they try to provide for their families. That is a useful perspective because really, the poachers aren’t the true reason for elephants’ status as an endangered species. The poachers are the tool of the ivory dealers, and both exist because many of the world’s rich people want to pay lots of money for tusks. Those people are the villains here. The poachers are simply trying to get ahead rather than living day-by-day doing whatever odd jobs can be found.
As a result of the film’s judgment-free, up-close approach, When Lambs Become Lions feels more like a narrative feature than you’d expect. I was curious to see how the story would end and enjoyed the twists and turns along the way. As it turns out, poachers and rangers are not like oil and water. They mix, they intermingle, and they can at time seven switch from one side to the other. Even though rangers are authorized (and expected) to shoot poachers on sight, there’s a respect for their opponents’ circumstances and humanity that feels so very foreign, quaint, and refreshing in contrast to the western ultra-partisan, hyper-adversarial approach to conflict.
What’s the cause of those differing attitudes to one’s ideological opponents? Is it that we’ve had it too good for too long to remember what it’s like to make hard choices to survive? Are we afraid to engage with those who have different opinions than ours? Why can’t we see past those differences that are so minor in comparison to the divide between than these two relatives, one of whom is expected to feed the other to crocodiles when both are on duty? I’m not sure but it’s something for us to figure out because, like rangers say about poachers, that story is unlikely to have a happy ending.