The human factor in rhino poaching

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Anton Crone discusses the new documentary Horn, which considers the human
factor in Africa’s rhino poaching crisis.

“We don’t earn so much. And those people who are just sitting and just doing
the talking; they earn much,’ says an impoverished man interviewed in the new
film Horn directed by Dr Riena-Marie Loader. The man’s statement applies to the
debate on rhino poaching. Last year 1 004 rhino were killed in South Africa, their
horns smuggled to the East where their value is measured in myth, medicine
and prestige.

Much of the killing is being done by impoverished men. The talking is being done
by conservationists, rhino farmers and government, the key discussion being
whether to legalise the horn trade and supposedly save rhino through farming
and the use of the profit to tackle poaching. The counter argument is that
farmers and government are just out to make money. Money talks. Wealthy
people talk. There is a lot of talking, but no priority put on poverty, one of the
most aggravating factors in poaching.

Office bound animal lovers troll reports of rhino slaughter on the web, perhaps
believing their statements are revelatory; that they will make a difference. A
picture of a Thai man posing with a rhino shot in a legal hunting operation
prompts: “He needs shooting, the bastard,’ and, “I fucking hate people.’ The
more reasonable statements go like this: “Killing rhinos for something utterly
unnecessary and useless is murder,’ and, “I truly believe that exploiting animals
for profit is morally low and amounts to the same as the exploitation of humans
in the slave industry,’ an ironic statement considering it is the exploitation of
humans, not animals, that drives poaching. Asians are duped into thinking the
horn is of significant value and the poor who live near wildlife areas are
compelled to kill rhino for as little as R10 000.

‘It is quite literally a human problem from start to finish with people killing the
animals on one end of the chain and consuming the “product’ on the other,’ says
Loader. “However, the minimalism of this binary always sat uncomfortably with
me, since I sensed that reality must be much more complex. It cannot just be
about stopping the poaching in Africa and the consuming in Asia.

“While driving through the Leseding Township in the Limpopo province, this
dimension presented itself to me in all its authentic reality. We were there to
interview an employee of the Waterberg Welfare Society, July Letsebe, who
lives with HIV/AIDS and actively works to prevent the disease from spreading in
his community. Upon arriving, we walked down one of the streets to film some
cutaways. Dozens of toddlers came running towards us, curious why we were
there. I looked around, taking in the scene. On one end of the street there were
the first of hundreds of makeshift shacks. Everywhere there were barefoot
children playing in the dust. No adult in sight, except for two women entering
the small HIV clinic we came to film.

“Though I did not include this moment in the film, it significantly informed my
thinking about it. I felt overwhelmed by the scale of poverty, unemployment, HIV
/ AIDS and abandonment in an area with a high rhino population. From the start
I intended to highlight the social dimension of rhino poaching in South Africa, yet
the extent of what it actually involves vividly dawned on me at this point. It
presented itself in its human form – in the face of a teenager who had never
seen a rhino, in the eyes of a child sitting in the street instead of being at school
and in the belly of a girl heavily pregnant at the age of 15. The cinematographer,
David Cawley, felt similarly overwhelmed, saying how hard it is to see the rhino
ever standing a chance in the light of such socio-economic desperation.’

Besides interviewing politicians and conservationists about their views on the
matter, Loader focuses on specific anti-poaching units in South Africa’s
Waterberg region. In a unique take on documentary filmmaking, she follows a
created character who is placed in a very real training programme for an anti-
poaching unit. The intention is to determine how effective anti-poaching as a
solution-driven method is to combat the surge in poaching. A key dimension is
the assessment of rhino monitor training as a forward-looking strategy that
serves the protection of not only rhinos, but also the betterment of the wider
community.

“Most of them do the training, not out of a desire to save a species, but as a
way out of unemployment,’ says Loader. “Protecting rhino becomes a way out
of abject poverty. I realised that this dimension presents an opportunity to see
the rhino as a living asset, not for individual profit but for the social
empowerment of whole communities. The experience of making the film
therefore engendered a hopeful note of understanding the dilemma that many
underprivileged communities face daily.

“As one of the trainees explained during filming: People doing this job live in
fear, because they are often offered lucrative cash for information useful to
poachers. If they accept, they kill the rhino; if they refuse, they get killed
themselves.’

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