By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The new documentary "Trophy" opens in a sprawling corner of South Africa run by John Hume, who is praised by some as protecting the continent's rhinos from extinction and vilified by others for trying to turn the animals into cash spinners.
"Trophy," shown this week at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, examines how efforts to commercialize wild animals and encourage big-game hunting in Africa can generate funds for conservation, while also arousing criticism.
"We want the viewer to go through a roller coaster of being challenged and being confused," filmmaker Shaul Schwarz said in an interview, adding there were no easy answers for protecting Africa's big game.
"Trophy" looks at people like Hume, the world's largest private rhino breeder, who has spent large sums to protect the animals from poachers seeking to kill them for their horns.
Hume trims the tips of the horns from his 1,500 rhinos every two years, building a stockpile worth tens of millions of dollars that he wants to sell. He is lobbying to make the trade legal and use proceeds to protect more rhinos.
Some conservationists criticize him for wanting to turn a wild animal into a commodity, similar to the treatment of livestock.
Rhino horns, which can grow back, sell for prices higher than gold in parts of Asia where there is a belief, unfounded by science, that they can cure cancer.
Due to Asian demand, rhino poaching in South Africa surged to a record 1,215 animals in 2014. South Africa has some 20,000 rhinos, or about 80 percent of the world's rhino population.
The film also asks questions about the role of game resorts sustained by hunting that can restore African ecosystems. Tourists on photo safaris may spend a few hundred dollars a night to stay at an African game lodge while a hunter can be paying several thousand dollars a night to kill game.
Data is scarce on how much money hunting generates across Africa. But in South Africa, the Environment Ministry has said the hunting industry is worth about 6.2 billion rand ($485 million) a year.
A license to hunt a lion in southern Africa can go for about $50,000. International agencies regulate some of the hunts and direct that proceeds be used to support conservation efforts in impoverished parts of the continent.
During filming, hunting became a global issue after an American trophy hunter in 2015 killed a lion named "Cecil," provoking an international outcry.
After that, Schwarz and fellow filmmaker Christina Clusiau lost access to some sources who feared backlash.
"It is hard to wrap your head around the idea that to conserve something, sometimes we may have to kill," Clusiau said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Peter Cooney)