Rogue Rubin could not believe what she was reading when a post popped up on Instagram claiming lions faced extinction. She knew other species were endangered, but not lions.
As a child growing up in a traditional Orthodox Jewish family in Johannesburg, Rubin lived across the road from an animal sanctuary and developed a love of wildlife at a young age.“Then as I got older, and learned more and more about what’s happening in our world, and knowing that it’s something that we have to take care of, tikkun olam, we have to give back, conservation became more important to me.”How could she not have known that there were only 20,000 lions left in the wild then? The question puzzled her, and eventually led to the reason we are talking: a hard-hitting investigative documentary called Lion Spy in which she goes undercover to expose the dubious conservation claims of trophy hunters who stalk and kill animals, including many lions.When she saw the post, by South African influencer Conor Mccreedy, Rubin was working in Los Angeles as a producer on Dr Phil and already wrestling with her conscience.
“I think we’re currently in a world where the cinema, and I define cinema as TV as well, is our greatest source of information, connection and education. So, I was disillusioned with where I was at.”The post “came when I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. We weren’t doing enough. I was absolutely shocked that the most iconic animal in the world would be going extinct without our knowledge. So it was like a perfect storm.”To explore what was going on, she visited Mccreedy. Their meeting in the documentary is embarrassing. Despite founding a non-profit organisation called Protecting African Lions, he is flummoxed when pressed for basic information. He seems well-meaning, but out of his depth.For the purposes of the documentary, says Rubin, he serves as an example of why conservationists should not all be taken at face value, and why “we can’t just
Through him, Rubin learned about the “walking with lions” experience, where tourists can pay for hands-on time with cuddly looking lion cubs. What they are not told is when the animals have grown too big for such encounters, they are sold to be shot in hunts.Rubin continued “down the rabbit hole”, and discovered that even trophy hunters were claiming to be conservationists. Using the motto “if it pays, it stays”, they insisted that some of the money made from trophy hunting was being ploughed back into preserving wildlife. “I was so disillusioned,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, is anybody doing anything? What is going on here?’”
Chris Mercer, a former lawyer from Zimbabwe and director of Campaign Against Canned Hunting, told her that in order to save the lion, the smokescreen he claimed trophy hunters were creating needed to be cleared, and the way to do that was to “expose their lies”.While trophy hunters are not the biggest threat to wild lions, “the problem is no one knows they are going extinct,” says Rubin. “And that is because of trophy hunters, their money, and their power.”
Mercer gave Rubin direction. She said: “I’m a very logical, judicious person, and I pride myself on reading all the scientific papers, as well as legal papers, and he played a massive role by lining out clinically what was going on and how the law and simple things like ‘fair chase’ — the idea that if you’re hunting, there’s got to be some fairness in it — were not being upheld. Obviously, with high-powered rifles and trucks, where’s the fair chase?”
Two questions needed to be addressed: the humane factor, and whether money from trophy hunting was really going into conservation. Rubin needed access to trophy hunts, but no one would let her join them. As a last resort, she constructed an alias online, transforming herself into Joni (her real first name) Michelle Kiser, a pro-hunting photographer and videographer from the USA looking for intern work.