The Backstory

 The Sykes Family, 1937. L to R: Laura, Calvin, Walter, Howard

The Sykes Family, 1937. L to R: Laura, Calvin, Walter, Howard

 

In June 1937, a family from New York City's financial and social elite set sail aboard the French Liner Normandie, bound for the wilds of colonial British East Africa. For the Sykes family of four—the patriarch Howard, his wife Laura, and sons Walter and Calvin (16- and 14-years-old, respectively)—the epic 8,500 mile journey into the heart of the Serengeti Plains had a singular aim: kill as many iconic African animals as possible to collect as trophies.

Expertly led by prominent safari guide J.A. Hunter, the trip was a raging success. Ten weeks later, the family started their journey home, laden with dozens of film rolls, notebooks full of observations, countless stories to tell and exaggerate, and hundreds of pelts, heads, skulls, furs, artifacts, and other trophies of success. In the end, more than 240 animals were taken, including three cheetahs, four lions, one leopard, and four rhinos. The family killed four of the famous “Big Five,” only missing out on an elephant trophy due to lack of a suitably "impressive" specimen.

While not commonplace, such hunting safaris were not unheard of at that time. What makes this particular safari fascinating and unique are the detailed journals entries by the family, hours of film footage—reportedly the first color film ever shot on the continent—and the physical trophies and souvenirs that remain.

Filmmaker Hunter Sykes, the great-grandson of Laura and Howard and grandson of Walter, grew up with these films, trophies, and stories that expound the glory and excitement of hunting Africa's iconic wildlife. While they form an irrefutable part of his family history, he struggles to find the words to explain to his son how it was considered “sporting” to track down and kill large animals for nothing more than a trophy, especially when many of the species hunted during the 1937 safari are rare or critically endangered today.

Safari guide and conservationist Alex Hunter sees only a shadow of the Africa that his grandfather, J.A. Hunter, knew and captured in his books. Alex is based on Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is home to the last Northern White Rhinos in the wild and several dozen critically endangered Black Rhinos. He rejects trophy hunting in favor of walking safaris and wildlife conservation programs, as does Hunter and his immediate family

Eighty years after their ancestors' first meeting, Hunter and Alex unite to retrace the 1937 safari. But this story is about much more than retracing family footsteps. Today, African landscapes and borders have shifted, people and cultures have changed, air travel has become passé, and technology has exponentially altered the way we communicate and relate to each other. Notably, sentiment toward wildlife has also shifted as Big Game trophy hunting is increasingly looked upon as unsustainable, unethical, and even disreputable.

In this film, we seek vestiges of days past: we hunt for the old schoolhouse where children marched and performed calisthenics; we look to discover if open landscapes still exist or have become towns or farms; we wonder what wildlife is still prevalent and anticipate some sobering discoveries about species driven to the edge of extinction; we contemplate the legacy of our family’s actions; we ponder our place and role today; and we highlight success stories and solutions in combatting the destruction of African wildlife, environment, and culture.

 John Alexander (J.A.) Hunter, grandfather of Alex Hunter, posing with a member of the camp staff during the 1937 Sykes safari

John Alexander (J.A.) Hunter, grandfather of Alex Hunter, posing with a member of the camp staff during the 1937 Sykes safari