Author Tom Opre’s Shares Details About His Latest Piece “Killing the Shepherd”

Tom Opre is a celebrated figure in the outdoor industry, renowned for his profound passion for nature, wildlife, and hunting. As an American outdoor enthusiast, photographer, and filmmaker, Tom has dedicated his life to capturing the essence of the great outdoors through his lens, showcasing its splendor to the world. With a keen eye for detail and a deep appreciation for wildlife, his photography and videography skills have graced numerous publications and television shows, captivating audiences with awe-inspiring images of nature’s majesty.

Beyond his artistic prowess, Tom Opre is also an ardent advocate for responsible hunting practices and wildlife conservation. Through his work, he aims to educate and inspire fellow outdoor enthusiasts about the importance of preserving natural habitats and promoting sustainable hunting ethics. Tom’s genuine love for the wilderness and his commitment to the environment have earned him respect and admiration among peers and nature enthusiasts alike, making him a true ambassador for the beauty and preservation of our planet’s wild spaces.

Your book, ‘Killing the Shepherd: Beyond the Film,’ explores the remarkable story of a woman chief leading a community in Zambia to combat wildlife poaching. What initially drew you to this community and inspired you to document their journey?

In 2016, I was a keynote speaker at a worldwide wildlife conservation conference. After my presentation, a gentleman from Zambia, Roland Norton, approached me and told me this crazy story of how a woman chief had approached him about helping her people and how this relationship would also benefit the local wildlife population which bushmeat poaching gangs had decimated. The wildlife had almost disappeared, and in some cases, certain species had gone locally extinct. The people are subsistence farmers whose crops often fail due to drought. It had been more than twenty years since a viable safari operator had worked in the area which is the size of the State of Delaware, over 1.2 million acres. The government had designated the area, called the Lower Luano Valley, as game depleted. I was intrigued. The next day, while we waited for afternoon flights to our respective homes, Norton and I discussed his successful efforts to assist the people of the Kingdom of Shikabeta for almost four hours. Pages of notes later, I made a commitment to visit in May of 2017. 

The book delves deeper into the complexities, heartaches, and successes of the business agreement between the community and Roland Norton. Can you share some insights into the challenges and triumphs you witnessed while documenting this unique partnership?

The reality of on-the-ground conservation in Africa isn’t simple. While bushmeat poaching was the main culprit behind destroying wildlife stocks on the land, the community also propagated wildlife loss by subsistence poaching — either setting wire snares along water holes or running dogs and spearing animals when tired. Roland teamed up with his forty-year-old son and professional hunter, Alister. Then they had to wean the people off game meat. They had to provide the community with an alternative protein source. Investing in a major aquaculture farm, fish would fill the bill. The Nortons had never built a fish farm, let alone managed one, plus the farm was in a remote area far off the electrical grid, so things are never simple. But probably the most difficult aspect of life in the Lower Luano Valley is watching the people deal with poverty, disease, and, shockingly, child brides. When a girl reaches puberty her family will often put her up for sale. Usually, an older man looking for a second or third wife will be the customer. A girl can bring thirty bags of corn, which is enough to feed a family of 8 or 9 (typical family size) for a year. 

In your documentary work, you spent years capturing the lives of the people and the impact of wildlife poaching on the community. How did this experience shape your perspective on conservation efforts and the role communities play in preserving wildlife?

We live in a world with over eight million humans. As a species, we have a pretty bad track record, over thousands of years, being responsible conservationists. In the modern age, it’s clear that if natural resources, like wildlife, don’t provide some sort of value or economic benefit to the local communities living with these resources they’ll go the way of the Dodo bird — extinct. Iconic megafauna doesn’t live in cities. It lives in rural ecosystems. It’s the people who live in those areas who will be tasked with managing the planet’s wildlife resources. They have local knowledge and experience. It won’t be people living in mega metropolitan areas doing the hard work. These people often don’t even know where their food originates. In fact, urban dwellers are often a bigger problem than poachers. But that’s for another discussion. 

‘Killing the Shepherd: Beyond the Film’ promises to provide hope for the future of Africa’s wildlife and offers a blueprint for empowering rural communities. Could you discuss some of the key lessons or strategies that readers can expect to discover in the book?

Key to the survival of healthy wildlife populations is habitat. Without good habitat, you can’t have wildlife. Traveling over uncharted ground, the Nortons have organically created a business model which hinges on long-term commitments and securing investment. Doesn’t that sound like earth-shattering concepts? No. But in most of Africa, getting government, local stakeholders, and safari operators into the same long-term plan hasn’t been the norm. Twenty to twenty-five-year concession leases and securing small parcels of land under any development are fundamental to saving Africa’s wild habitat. Safari operators must have enough funding to fulfill economic commitments without relying 100% on wildlife revenue. In other words, they must make a big investment for a long-term gamble. Nothing is simple in Africa. But probably as important is understanding the safari hunting model with its colonialism roots is dead. These safari companies must become much more than hunting operations. They must become environmental protection companies. Southern African governments don’t have the resources to protect the vast hunting concession lands, almost double the acreage of national parks. Whereas these safari companies are the first line of defense against illegal logging, charcoal production, and mining, plus development in wildlife-designated areas and ubiquitous wildlife poaching. There must be social acceptance of this model by the Western world, ignorant souls who often jump on the first anti-hunting social media post or don’t realize that not every animal in Africa is on the endangered species list. To stand on the wrong side is nothing more than neocolonialism. It will only usher the destruction of all wildlife habitats in Africa. 

As both a filmmaker and an author, what do you hope readers will take away from ‘Killing the Shepherd: Beyond the Film’? What impact do you envision this book having on raising awareness about wildlife conservation and inspiring action to support rural communities in Africa?

Great question. How do you want to see the future of our planet? Do you want to ensure your grandchildren’s grandchildren can see large populations of African wildlife? Do you want our planet to be filled with healthy ecosystems for all creatures to live, including humans? There are viable alternatives to decimating our planet’s natural resources. Modern conservation, the wise use of our natural resources, is the only way to provide for rural communities living on vast tracts of land set aside for wildlife.

Bonus Question

What drink do you celebrate with when you finish a book or a film?

Simple. Macallan Rare Cask Scotch Whiskey. But that’s only after we finish a feature documentary film and a book. 

His new book Killing the Shepherd: Beyond the Film is available on Amazon!

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