What does desperation do to people? That’s the question at the heart of When Lambs Become Lions, a documentary set in Kenya amid a crackdown on poaching. The effort reached a dramatic apex in 2016, when the government symbolically burned 105 tons of ivory to signal a zero-tolerance stance.
The film, which was has been screening in select cities across the U.S. this winter, follows three men with different relationships to the deadly trade as they struggle to survive in a tightening market. Lukas’s family has hunted elephants for generations; using traditional knowledge, he finds his livelihood challenged by stiff competition and stricter regulations. X, an ivory trader whose poacher dad was killed by rangers, hopes to build a more stable life for his son. And Asan, a wildlife ranger, hasn’t been paid for his government work in months; his wife is pregnant, and he’s becoming frantic with anxiety. X and Lukas hunt the endangered elephants that Asan (a former poacher himself) is trying to protect.
These three men form the backbone of the film and the audience’s window into the seldom-seen action that surrounds big-game poaching. When Lambs Become Lions reveals vivid personal histories and stakes on both sides of the trade. So much of the film’s power comes from the main characters’ vulnerability, as they reckon daily with life-and-death choices regarding poaching, survival, and providing for their families. Sometimes Lukas, X, and Asan seem like tough guys, stone-faced and violent. Other times they look like frightened kids, unsure and guessing.
Director Jon Kasbe followed Lukas, X, and Asan for three years. The film owes its success to this feat of extended access, which helps viewers understand what drives people to hunt beautiful, prized animals in the first place. When Lambs Become Lions reveals itself to be a devastating story not only because elephants die in it, graphically and violently, but also because it captures how HIV/AIDS, government overreach, and domestic abuse all trickle down through generations.
The film’s cinematography beautifully immerses us in the world of the protagonists—from wide shots of the open savannah, to action scenes of Asan chasing poachers in a park, to tight, close-up city shots of X and Lukas making their way to a club and listening to Biggie. We’re right there for elephant hunts and government holdups. But we also see more quietly revealing moments: X sits with Asan’s wife as she goes into labor; Lukas finds frogs whose toxins are used to poison his arrows, so the elephants will die silently. “Better to kill the poacher and spare the elephant,” Asan says at one point, flipping through digital pictures of carcasses he’s found in the bush.
To call When Lambs Become Lions a documentary about elephant poaching hardly captures the story. The film becomes far more complicated than who survives, elephants or people. It's less about how poaching is carried out than why.