Life & Culture

Meet the 'lion spy' who went undercover to expose the trophy hunters

Rogue Rubin took drastic risks to expose bogus claims about lion conservation


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.

The news hit her hard.

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.

“So, I adored animals,” she tells me over Zoom.

“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
follow blindly”.

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.

Rogue disappeared: “I had no online presence for many years,” she says. To protect her cover, Rubin did not tell anyone what she was doing, including Mercer, who found out only when Lion Spy received its première in Australia, where Rubin now lives.

The ruse worked and invitations started arriving.

One man not featured in the film asked her to come along for a minimum of six months, which “sounded like the scariest thing on the face of the earth,” she says. “And thank God I didn’t go, because I met the guy later at a conference and I was scared, totally petrified.”

She eventually joined Pieter Kriel, of Mkulu African Hunting Safaris, a burly throwback to apartheid-era South Africa, and a group of Singaporean men who wanted to celebrate a 30th birthday with a zebra kill.

In the film, after queasily watching a freshly slaughtered animal being skinned for supper on her first night in camp, Rubin, “a five foot two, vegetarian, liberal Jewish girl”, nervously barricades herself in her lodgings, and wonders if she is in over her head.

“That night, I feared every human. You know, I’m a single female and I’ve just got into a car with a man I’ve never met. I end up at a campsite with multiple men. I can’t pronounce their names and I don’t know where I am. I have zero contact with the outside world and here I am, alone, with men and guns. So I would be stupid not to be afraid, right?”

She experienced an adrenaline rush on her first lion hunt, but not for the same reason as Bob, a client caught up in a white-saviour narrative seemingly designed to give the hunt a mythic dimension, and make him feel like a hero.

“I was absolutely petrified, you see that in the film,” says Rubin.

“And there’s multiple reasons to be petrified: people aren’t always the best shots, so is someone going to shoot me? Is someone going to rape me? There’s so many reasons to be scared. So my adrenaline was going, but for different reasons to other people’s.”

The hunts were often harrowing but as Kiser, she had to outwardly appear “very pro-trophy hunting” when in reality “I don’t like animals being killed. And particularly in such a format. I don’t see the point in a trophy. I don’t believe it stands for anything.”

Although she could not compartmentalise what she felt as Kiser/Rubin, being behind a camera lens allowed her to “distance myself from situations,” she says. “You’ve got this kind of protection between you and what’s going on. And so you’re almost watching TV take place in front of you, not real life.”

After the hunt come the trophy photographs, where the hunter, usually a white male, sits proudly next to their kill. Before the pictures are taken, all signs of blood and violence are cleaned away, as if to show them would be shameful. Rubin is as baffled by this as I am.

“I’d think, ‘okay, so you go off, you kill it, and then you want to remove all the blood, make it look alive, make it look happy?’ It makes no sense to me. Why not go take a photo with a real alive one? Still to this day, I don’t understand that at all.”

This makes me wonder if, away from the camera and the bravado, anyone expressed remorse after killing an animal for the first time.

“There was one person that absolutely did and was really taken aback when they realised what they’d done,” says Rubin.

“They quickly got over it. Like they had that initial shock factor of, ‘Wow, this is actually a beautiful creature I just destroyed’, which I thought was so fascinating. But then they went off and killed another three or four.”

To boost her alias’s reputation, Rubin posted photos online as Kiser and was shocked by the extreme abuse that came from conservationists. This added to her fear of a backlash after she revealed her true identity, and for this reason she will not talk about her family.

“I don’t want to put them in any sort of jeopardy or under fire for anything that I do,” she says.

She went into the project with an open mind, and swung between arguments. If she discovered that money from hunting was actually going into conservation, while she hated animals being killed for sport, she says she “felt a moral obligation to say that”.

“I don’t consider myself a deceptive person. I never went out to deceive. So I didn’t do a lot of talking for those years. I did a lot of listening, and a lot of looking, and a lot of filming.”

After six years and numerous hunts, “I was like not only is their money not going into conservation,” she says, “but the act is not a humane act.”

Can the wild lion be saved? “I have to believe if we really pick up and act now and act fast and act smart, there’s something we can do.

“But if we continue to turn a blind eye the way we have, then we’re in deep trouble.

“I hope that this is a film that’s educating and enlightening so that others help take the next step of continuing the journey. I helped expose it, but we all need to take responsibility in the next steps. Like one man can’t do it alone.”

Lion Spy will be available on 1 August, to own and rent, on iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon and Sky Store

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