Showing both sides of an issue, particularly an issue as evidently wrong as elephant poaching, seems like a useless idea. By presenting both a poacher and a person attempting to stop poaching, it should be clear from the very beginning that one character is the hero and one is the villain. Yet in director Jon Kasbe’s first feature-length documentary, When Lambs Become Lions, by digging into the economic situations of both aforementioned men, this story isn’t close to as one-sided as one would imagine.
Kasbe follows a man known only as “X,” an elephant tusk poacher in Northern Kenya. Despite his desire for the money that poaching allows, even he doesn’t like the idea of killing the elephants, which he gives to his partner, Lukas. On the other side is Asan who works as a game ranger protecting the often poached animals. The ranger’s approach to finding poachers is “no interrogation, bullet on the spot.” Complicating matters, “X” and Asan are cousins, both still involved with each other’s lives.
The way Kasbe presents both “X” and Asan is done in a way that shows the complications of both professions. “X” is aware that he could do all sorts of other jobs, and his aversion to killing makes it clear he’d probably like to do something else, but the quick turnaround of the elephant tusk trade offers a surefire way for him to support his children. Asan also used to work as an elephant poacher, but couldn’t take the life anymore. With the game rangers working for months without pay and a baby on the way, Asan has to find income any way he can.
Kasbe knows that his audience will sympathize more with Asan than with “X,” but by letting both sides explain their situation, this issue becomes more complex and almost understandable. Kasbe doesn’t preach the obvious, but allows the audience to come to their own conclusions of these two men put on separate sides of an unwinnable situation.
In telling the story of these two men, Kasbe presents the larger problems within the poaching industry. Money for valuable ivory is high, while the resources aren’t there to protect the animals from harm. Even when the government burns millions of dollars of tusks confiscated by poachers as a warning, all the action seems to do is boost the demand for such precious items.
What’s most remarkable is that Kasbe was able to infiltrate both groups, film beside them, and do so without ruining the integrity of the story he’s telling. Whenever Kasbe goes into the field with either side, he’s putting his life in danger. Even on an inauspicious night out with “X,” a man pulls a knife on his group, a terrifying, unexpected example of the dangers Kasbe must have put himself in to get this footage.
When Lambs Become Lions is quite possibly the most even-handed documentary that could be made about an issue like poaching. Kasbe’s peculiar ability to work with both sides of this issue, and allow them to make their case for their own livelihood, makes this a deeply personal story about a larger issue than one would expect.