This Woman Infiltrated the World of Lion Trophy Hunting—and She's About to Expose It

'If there's one lion left in the wild, they will pay to hunt it. These people would pay billions to kill it. To be the last human on Earth to kill a lion."

Rogue Rubin did not set out to spend six years undercover posing as a trophy hunter. As a 5ft 2in vegetarian who lives in Australia, she is what those hunters would call a "bunny hugger."

The filmmaker had gone to South Africa with the idea of making a documentary about lion conservationists and all the good work they do. But when she arrived, she found something different.

"I didn't meet these amazing humans," she told Newsweek. "I discovered that when you're told you're walking with a lion to rehabilitate it into the wild, actually, you're just taking part in the awful cycle of canned lion hunting. When you pet a cub, you're taking part in that cycle because they're bred for it.

"As [the conservationists] say: 'Petted for profit, walked for profit, and then paid to be shot, essentially."

Rubin found that trophy hunting was a huge part of what is seen as conservation in South Africa. She wanted to understand if this industry really was helping to save the species. But none of the hunters wanted to talk to her. So, she created an alias that granted her access to the club.

"A 5ft 2in meat-eating, gun-toting Republican? That's exciting," she said.

Over the next six years, Rubin went back and forth to South Africa—where she was born—on hunting expeditions. She used her alias to enmesh herself in the lion trophy hunting community, to film them and get a better understanding of how the industry works.

Her film about her experiences, Lion Spy, is set to be released on November 24 in Australia and at the start of 2022 in the U.S. It comes at a bleak time for the species.

There are believed to be just 20,000 lions left in the wild. They are classified as vulnerable and populations are declining. At the current rate of loss, African lions could be extinct by 2050. Yet little is done to protect them.

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Rogue Rubin spent six years following lion trophy hunters to understand the industry. Olli Teirila

Only a handful of countries, including Australia and France, have banned the import of lion trophies. The U.S. dallied with the idea of prohibiting their import after the much-publicized death of Cecil the lion, who was killed by the American dentist Walter J. Palmer in 2015. A limited ban on certain imports was introduced by the Obama administration, but this was overturned by the Trump White House.

Trophy hunting is big business. A 2016 report by the Humane Society International found that over 1.26 million wildlife trophies were imported to the U.S. between 2005 and 2014. It estimates that 126,000 trophies are brought to the country every year.

cecil the lion
A PETA protest in Washington D.C. after Cecil the lion was killed by the American dentist Walter Palmer. Getty Images

Americans make up almost two-thirds of lion trophy hunters, according to Rubin. The hunters truly believe they are helping the species, the filmmaker said, but she also found them to take huge enjoyment from killing.

"They've been educated to believe they're doing the right thing and this is good. But there's also a primal exhilaration to it. People are enjoying it, they clap, they applaud afterwards. They laugh, they shake hands. They certainly get something out of it," she said.

"But if they felt they were doing wrong, would that be negated?" That, she said, is a question for psychologists.

She spoke to one man about why he was there and he told her: "I'm here to save the villagers from the wild lion. I'm here to protect them." But they were nowhere near any villages.

"I got a lot of white saviors," she said.

Rubin's research suggests that trophy hunting does not aid lion conservation. Economist Cameron Murray also weighed the practice in a report published in 2017. He examined the assertion in a 2015 study that trophy hunting trips provided $426 million and 53,000 jobs to Botswana, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe in the year 2012.

Murray found that the economic benefits had been "heavily overstated" and that the practice likely provided between 7,500 and 15,500 jobs, and income of $132 million at most. In total, trophy hunters contributed 0.03 percent of the GDP of the eight countries. He wrote, however: "The key question is whether or not that money is making a meaningful positive contribution to wildlife conservation."

Rubin said there were many low points over the six years of filming. She felt afraid for her safety on many occasions. There were moments when she didn't feel capable or good enough. And there were times that she felt she was becoming part of the problem by taking the lions' photos.

Rogue Rubin
Rogue Rubin. Her film, Lion Spy, will be released in Australia on November 24. Daniel Boud

She also said watching lions being killed was extremely difficult. "There are some intense scenes [in the film] and people are like: 'How could you stand there and watch this? Why didn't you run in front of them?' Why did I not run in front of men holding guns? Hmm. I don't know.

"I didn't do it because that would not achieve anything. I wasn't in the middle of nowhere yelling, 'Stop!' because it's not gonna do anything. The goal is to bring you a visual depiction and an authentic visual depiction that no one's given you before."

After returning to Australia and as she was about to start editing her footage, Rubin was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. She had to undergo operations and chemotherapy. This, she said, has made the film much more personal. "I'm meant to be dead," she said. "It's sort of my life I guess … I have to get through this just to tell the story."

Now the documentary is ready for release, Rubin is nervous about a backlash from the trophy hunting community. However, she said her goal was to tell the story and make a difference. "This is the most iconic animal on Earth," she said. "We all have a responsibility to the most iconic animal on Earth because we all profit from it—not financially, but emotionally from its very existence.

"It's like we're taking away the most iconic species on Earth. You can't do that. We all have an obligation to save it."