The Tiger King and its Original Treatment Proposal
Some five years ago Eric Goode, one of the directors of the Tiger King, approached me after supposedly having heard me give an interview on a podcast, to see if he and a colleague could visit me in Kenya to discuss the wildlife trade. I agreed.
Eric and Rebecca Chaiklin, the co-director of the Tiger King, showed up here on Mount Kenya and interviewed me in several sessions over two days, all based on the STOLEN WORLD treatment proposal (see below). We discussed using some of my contacts and accesses to go into the field and shoot some of the proposed episodes.
Things then went quiet. But I was also working on a tiger-related film illustrating what the reality of tiger farming, and I got back in touch with Eric when we had a first rough cut. He responded with an e-mail stating:
“Thank you so much for sharing this. The project is powerful. I would love to discuss potentially collaborating with you on this. It is an important film that should get wide distribution. I would be interested in possibly lending some financial support and partnering to assure that happens.”
After that, again nothing for a while, until last year where we had another exchange, where Eric showed interest in my outtake footage and talked about a number of episodes of his project having been sold.
I, of course, watched the Tiger King Netflix production when it came out, and saw that it had gone as far from the original intent of creating awareness about the wildlife trade as such a project could be. Adopting a tabloid-type of approach to documentary film-making, presenting to “Joe and Jane Six-pack in the Trailer Park” culture which seems to be a key element of a dysfunctional US society. Conservation and even animal welfare issues had largely gone out the window, and the treatment proposal they had presented me had nothing to do with the story they told in interviews, about how it had all started.
Disappointing? Yes, indeed. Surprising? Not really, as it was also my own experience in dealing with acquisition editors for our film (that film is now picked up by a major SVOD platform for Europe). The gatekeepers in the documentary business are looking for entertainment only, and the “edu” in edutainment has largely gone out the window. And then there are the large “family friendly” broadcasters, all looking for hope and a happy ending; but we couldn’t find any of that in the eight years of documenting the tiger farming industry and trade. So yes, handing control to the people who know what the “public” supposedly wants and can deal with seems the easiest way to get past the gatekeepers in the documentary world.
In the past forty years, over fifty-two percent of the wildlife on our planet has quietly vanished. One of the biggest contributors to this mass disappearance is the rapid growth in wildlife commerce. Stolen World is a provocative documentary series, comprised of 6-8 feature documentary films, which explore the scope of the wildlife trade through the personal verite stories of individuals on both the supply and demand side of the industry. In this series we will explore how humans relationship with the natural world has become so perverted.
Globally the illegal wildlife trade is big, big business, run by dangerous cartels and organized crime. Soaring profits are increasingly being used to finance the terrorist activities of organizations such as Somalia’s al Shaba, Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army and Al Qaeda. The penalties for getting caught are minimal and the resources for those working on the front lines of enforcement are desperately lacking in funding and manpower. As a result, the illegal wildlife trade has been surging in growth. The battle to protect certain highly endangered “extremely profitable” species such as rhinos and elephant has escalated into a full on undeclared war. This series of documentary films will take the viewer onto the front lines where we will embed with those risking their lives to save the planets last wild creatures.
In 2016 the illegal wildlife trade in The United States will potentially surpass the illegal drug trade in profits. In America, an insatiable appetite for exotic pets, largely fuels the trade. The majority of creatures that survive the voyage to the US, end up as pets in homes and back yards across the country; while others are used for parts in traditional medicines, fashion, home good products and for food. There are over 70 million exotics living in the US and many owners consider their animals to be members of their families. The rise in privately owned exotics has incited a heated controversy over what animals should be allowed to be kept as pets versus individual’s rights to keep what they wish.
Each of the films in this series will focus on the specific world of a particular group of animals. The ten groups of animals are
- big cats
- butterflies (and other pollinators)
Each of the documentary films will be a unique investigation that cinematically illustrates the distinct world of the particular group of animals. We will look into what the greatest threats are to each particular group of animals, the characteristics and social behavior distinctive to that genus, what role the animal plays in the trade, how they are extracted from the wild, transported, smuggled, bred; what purposes they are used for and the pathology of the characters involved with each particular species.
Throughout the series we will hear from a cacophony of voices: the agrarian laborer who poaches a tiger to sell for parts in order to feed his hungry children, the regional director of TRAFFIC (wildlife monitoring agency) who risks his life going undercover to expose a reptile smuggling ring; the colorful, obsessive “catch me if you can” smuggler, who travels to the ends of the earth to find the most rare and endangered creatures for a curator at a prominent zoo; the exotic pet owner who has lost her child in an unthinkable tragedy and is now raising a chimpanzee as her offspring, keeping the ape in diapers, and bottle feeding it; the Vietnamese cancer patient who believes a rhino horn is magic dust and will keep her alive. Through this chorus of voices, the documentary series will both illustrate and investigate the dangerous and colorful facets of the wildlife trafficking networks and the surrounding issues. The series will explore the complicated needs and demands of the end users that fuel this booming trade. Many of the provocative questions explored will not have easy answers but the films will shed light on how the illegal wildlife trade has become one of the biggest black markets in the world and the crisis wildlife on this planet is currently facing.
Our team is uniquely positioned to gain unprecedented access to many of the colorful characters on every side of the issue. We have been invited to embed with both national and international enforcement and monitoring agencies. We have been asked into the inner sanctums of a number of America’s most colorful exotic pet keepers. We have secured access to a couple of the biggest animal smugglers in the US. We have entrée to the largest exotic animal auction in the US where you can purchase anything from a giraffe, to a baby tiger, to a tortoise. We have entrance to the heads of several of the world’s most prominent zoos. We have access to some of the world’s most active animals rights groups. We potentially have access to some of the world’s largest medical labs, practicing animal testing and their breeding facilities, we will attempt to go undercover on a canned hunt. We have been invited to film with some of the leading conservationists and animal behavioral specialists.