by Naomi Meyer
as published by LitNet 21/11/2014
HORN: An interview with Reina-Marie Loader
Illegal rhino poaching is the theme of a movie made by Reina-Marie Loader. She tells Naomi Meyer about HORN.
Naomi: Reina-Marie, you’ve just made a documentary movie about rhino horn poaching. Why?
RM: There are several reasons. For a start, raising awareness about conservation and human justice through a creative medium is something that was part of my upbringing. While I was a young girl growing up in Lynnwood Glen in Pretoria, my life revolved around drama and everything cultural. I regularly participated in the Pretoria Eisteddfod in a multitude of categories under the direction of my mother, Rina Loader, who at the time had one of the most successful Afrikaans drama schools in the country – Ateljee dell’Arte. Most of the themes I approached in my performances were either of a social or an environmental nature. The fact that my mother exposed me to the social and environmental dimension of acting had a lasting impact on me. I got my love for academia and the environment from my father, who worked as a professor at the University of Pretoria and Unisa. He also worked as an honorary ranger in the Kruger National Park, which obviously informed my love for wildlife and conservation. Both my father and my mother therefore instilled a deep awareness in me for the importance of engaging in issues that need advocacy. It was therefore a natural progression that I venture into filmmaking, since to me it represents an area that uniquely combines the creative arts with academic research. The topic of rhino poaching allowed me to use these sensibilities in a way that I hope would have value to others. Moreover, it is an issue that needs serious advocacy, because it involves not only the animals, but also the people of South Africa and a whole spectrum of social and political injustices that are at play in our country at the moment. So to me rhino poaching is only a symptom of much larger problems – like poverty, health (or the lack of it), security, corruption and accountability. From my perspective, therefore, an ethical and socially aware approach to protecting the rhino will set a precedent that could radiate outward to have an impact on the larger problems that face this country. It is a pathway to the betterment of our country on all fronts. And surely that can only be a good thing. So, ultimately, I got involved in the rhino poaching issue from a filmmaking point of view in order to start advocating the benefits that protecting the rhino holds for the whole of South Africa.
Naomi: Where and how did you research this project?
RM: Researching this topic is very difficult, because rhino conservation is not only highly complex, but is often also motivated by personal and political agendas. As an unsuspecting filmmaker, one has to be very careful whom one trusts and/or includes in one’s film. Moreover, when I started researching this issue the media were not really interested in what is happening to the rhinos in the same way they are now. So getting support from organisations probably was, and to some extent still is, the most challenging dimension of the project. Writing to anti-poaching units, rangers and parks helped only in so far as people became aware of me, but it didn’t help me to get more information, funding, filming rights or access to various locations. So eventually I decided to do a series of research trips in South Africa where I physically went to parks, various units and private reserves on my own. Slowly, yet surely, people started understanding what I was trying to do.
I was then introduced to Nkwe Security Services in the Waterberg, who in turn put me in touch with Youth Environmental Services (YES). The YES project forms a part of the Waterberg Welfare Society and is an initiative designed to address the lack of skills in rhino poaching areas. The programme trains young and unemployed people from the Leseding township as rhino monitors, field guides and cooks. As soon as I became aware of this connection, the fact that rhino poaching is linked to the social situation of our communities in South Africa became crystal clear. Other anti-poaching units all across the country confirmed this dimension – especially in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.
The research trips were, therefore, vital for my process. I didn’t record anybody on camera at that stage, but met with people to gather information. This is an important part of the documentary process – especially if you are an independent filmmaker like me, not backed by massive media institutions like the BBC, National Geographic or ITV. When people see that one is sincere and one’s intentions are truly to help, they go the extra mile. It was amazing to see how people’s faith in the project grew as soon as I established personal contact and proved that I knew something about the subject.
However, given the fact that this is a constantly changing and evolving issue, researching the topic can only make one aware of the issues involved, but it doesn’t really help with the planning of the actual shoot – because it is happening in the moment and changing every single day. Rhino poaching as a current affairs issue cannot be told as a story that happened in the past – one has to enter the situation and see what one finds. This is the way I approached the whole film in the end – as a constantly shifting and changing process to which one has to respond. One cannot force the situation to become more exciting and more action-packed as a narrative, because it simply isn’t the reality of what we encountered.
So ultimately, the film happened in the edit. I called this process the “lived documentary” mode, because the filmmaker has to live through the situation in order to viscerally experience and therefore understand the situation.
This also made the film come alive for me personally, because the issues involved go beyond the film and create the opportunity to talk about the subject in greater depth with the help of the film. It opened up a previously closed avenue that allowed me to comprehend the human impact of poaching and how complex it actually is. It is not just about what is being done to the animals. On the one hand, the filmmaking process becomes part of the research/learning process. On the other hand, it becomes part of a personal experience and a personal understanding that goes beyond the mere comprehension of facts and statistics.
Naomi: The world rhino population has dropped by more than 90% in the past 30 years. What may be the main reason or reasons?
RM: This is a very difficult question, as there is no single reason for this happening. It is a combination of a whole range of elements that created the perfect storm that flared up again in 2008. Firstly, rhino horn forms a big part of traditional medicines in Asia. However, horn is not used only as an aphrodisiac, as many believe. It is also perceived as a cure for cancer and also for hangovers. Using it has become a status symbol and there is even a special rhino wine people drink at parties. Secondly, we should also look closer to home to find some of the reasons. Historically, rhino horn has been a massive source of money for the various struggles all across Africa – and it still is. The apartheid government not only used horn under the table to fund their campaigns, but they also trained and provided arms to certain groups in and around South Africa. These arms are now turning up in rhino poaching ballistics. It is also used to fund terrorism and other wars in Africa.
So it is a massively complicated problem, but it is one that South Africa was warned about in the late 1980s and early 1990s. South Africa knew that practically all rhinos north of our borders had been wiped out. Botswana had lost their rhinos, Zimbabwe had lost their rhinos and Mozambique had lost their rhinos. Most were also gone in the rest of Africa. Rangers from these countries told South Africa: Be prepared – it is coming your way; and indeed in 1994 it briefly did. There was a short-lived spike in poaching in the Kruger National Park and in KwaZulu-Natal. Then, for some strange reason, poaching stopped until 2008. By and large, people attribute this to the fact that thousands of rhino had been wiped out by 1994 over a period of ten to fifteen years. A huge amount of horn was injected into the market during this period. So there was an enormous supply of horn feeding the habits of only a few rich individuals. Additionally, a major user country like Vietnam was just starting to come out of its war trauma and using horn wasn’t affordable to the majority of potential users. Things have since stabilised in Asia and people have more money to spend on so-called luxuries. Conversely, things are less stable in Africa and people are poor and need money for various reasons. Moreover, corruption has increasingly become a problem in the past ten years in South Africa, which makes effective policing more complicated. This holds true not only for wildlife crime, but for also other organised crime by criminals who find South Africa to be an easy base – criminals involved in drugs and human trafficking, for example. We now also see these sections crossing over, for instance that people involved in human trafficking also become involved in the illegal wildlife trade.
Naomi: The use of rhino horn for medicinal purposes has scientifically long been discredited. “One might as well chew one’s own fingernail, since it consists of exactly the same chemical material,” it is said. So why is poaching on the rise?
RM: Here, too, there is no one answer. People are still frantically trying to figure out why poaching started up again so suddenly in 2008. Some say it is because around the start of the crisis a Chinese official openly claimed that using rhino horn had cured his cancer. Others believe in a more sinister conspiracy of people within Africa who would benefit from the legalisation of horn trade, so they deliberately reawakened the sleeping dog. Whatever the reason may be, the priority for us today is to try to keep our rhinos safe with their horns intact. There are several failings at the moment which, when corrected, will not only benefit the fight against poaching, but will also start addressing other significant problems we are facing in our country.
Naomi: What are some of the underlying core factors that pave the way to wildlife crime?
RM: From my observations during the making of Horn, one of the principle factors is that we as a country are failing many communities in rural areas around rhino-populated regions. This again has much to do with our history and what we have been doing since the end of apartheid. Before the end of apartheid, an area such as the Waterberg was dedicated largely to farms producing produce such as beans and maize. Due to the sanctions that were placed on the country it had to be self-sufficient and tourism was not a factor for any economic purposes. After the end of apartheid, however, most of these farms were transformed into game reserves. As a result the workers lost their jobs because landowners did not need people to do hard labour in the fields anymore – they needed people with degrees or diplomas in game management etc. Unemployed consequently people flocked to small towns like Vaalwater, where large townships were born.
So not all people in South Africa regard conservation in the same way. Whereas someone from my background enjoys looking at an animal, photographing and making films about it, other people see it as something that caused suffering more than anything else. Additionally, children from these communities are not exposed to conservation and rhinos. Some kids I have encountered have not even seen a rhino, despite being surrounded by them in the vicinity.
To me the socio-economic inequalities in this country are a major contributor – if not the main one. Imagine if you were someone who lived in a shack, without a job and with mouths to feed. Imagine what you would do if a poacher came into your community and offered you R30 000 just for a whisper of information about where there are rhinos in your area. What would you do as somebody who does not know where your next meal is coming from? It places such a person in a very difficult situation in which, from an economic perspective, he or she cannot say no.
Then, many people also believe that if they say no to such a request their own lives may be in danger. One person said to me, for example, that he feels as if he is in an impossible situation, because if he says yes to the money, he contributes to killing the rhino, but if he says no, he might be killed himself by the poacher. People in these communities are unskilled, poor, scared and neglected by the system. How is conservation ever to be transformed into a positive thing if that is what people are experiencing daily?
Naomi: Rhino horn poaching can quickly provide the poacher with money. Does it also pay to become a monitor trainee?
RM: No, it will never be able to give exactly the same financial benefit to be a monitor as to be a criminal. Otherwise people would not become criminals. However, one has to remember that the simple poacher on the ground hardly makes money from this. If a poacher is caught or killed today, he will be replaced by somebody else who is also in desperate need for funds. Poachers are driven by exactly the same reasons as informants – they are poor. It is the people higher up in the syndicates or triads who make the money. The benefit of becoming a monitor is that you enter a career with a clear trajectory. Somebody who did not have a job last year, becomes a monitor, then a ranger and could someday even have his own security firm or go elsewhere with the skills he has acquired.
Moreover, what I have also come to realise is that people are not given the opportunities to develop a sense of awe for conservation. Exposing more people to our wildlife in a way that provides a sense of purpose can be more valuable than money alone. All of us want to feel that we matter, that we contribute to something important. I believe it is when that sense of purpose is challenged or denied that crime flourishes. To me that is highly relevant to the situation in South Africa, where the majority of people are denied basic human rights – not due to racial oppression, but by financial and social neglect. Becoming a monitor will not make you rich and is a very hard job – but it provides a starting point to help a lot of people relatively quickly. Of course, that will be the case only if the training and the jobs themselves are provided with this dimension of human dignity in mind.
Naomi: In your film a group of rhino monitor trainees are followed by the viewers as they receive training and are deployed for their first experience in the field as monitors. Why did you choose this perspective?
RM: To me this was a direct way into the real situation. It exposed me as a filmmaker to a side of South Africa that I (like many other South Africans) do not readily get to see. It hits home just how dire the situation is without a talking head telling me it is so. While I do have people in the film providing information about the situation, it is the fact that we were following these people and listened to their stories on and off screen that highlighted how connected conservation is to people and their problems. It is true that conservation is not really about managing animals, it is all about managing people. We went further than this, though, by placing a white man in the training group who also had no knowledge of the situation these trainees came from. It highlighted something quintessentially South African to me, namely that we live past each other in many ways. So this perspective allowed me to go beyond rhino poaching alone, to say something about South Africa and the responsibilities of all South Africans towards our wildlife and each other.
Naomi: Where can people watch this movie, and when?
RM: The film will premiere in Vienna on 26 November 2014. From then on it will be available to download on iTunes and directly from the website of the film’s distributors, Journeyman Pictures. The film is 90 minutes long, but there is also a shorter version available for functions and talks. We are also currently negotiating with broadcasters to screen the film in South Africa, Europe and the United States.
For all information related to the film you can visit our website or our other social media outlets on Facebook (CinemaHumain) or Twitter (@cinemahumain). We will also be doing several events in the coming year at universities both in South Africa and elsewhere. If people would like to book such an event or want me to come and talk about rhino poaching, please feel free to contact me via the website. I will do my best to accommodate people and help them raise awareness about the issue.
Naomi: You live in Austria, but recently toured South Africa – please tell our readers about the purpose of your visit and your experiences in the country.
RM: The purpose of the visit to South Africa recently was to stimulate discussion of the social dimension of rhino poaching, which is neglected overall in conversations. At the moment everything is about the legalisation debate. The people on the outskirts, like those in the film, are never really given a voice. Also, if you look at discussions on the internet, which is not limited to South Africa only, people are inclined to condemn the poacher with remarks like “kill the poacher”, “those bastards deserve to be shot”, etc. Remarks like these made me feel very uncomfortable from the outset, since I suspected that the issue was not as straightforward as that. My experience from making the film has confirmed and made this belief stronger. It is so much more complicated and intertwined with our history than most people realise.
At the same time, the events at which I have screened the film in South Africa so far have been deeply humbling experiences for me. For example, I screened the film and talked about it at a conference in the Kruger National Park a few months ago. People were truly struck by the arguments in the film. Afterwards, many came up to me to say how they have never thought of the issue in this way. This was surprising to me, but it was also very rewarding to have been able to present this side of the issue to people who are not exposed to it. A moment that I will always remember is when a man from the Congo said to me that the film does not speak only for the South African situation, but represents the whole of Africa. He said that watching Horn was like seeing his own country.
Making this film was a personal journey for me that taught me a great deal about my own country. A lot of what I learned was not positive at all – most was saddening, troubling and difficult to come to terms with as a South African. The comments of this one Congolese man, however, made everything worth it and in my mind placed the film as a humble contribution to rhino conservation as well as post-apartheid South Africa. I hope that future viewers will feel the same and find something meaningful for themselves in this film I created.
Naomi: Do you have an optimistic vision for the future?
RM: It is never easy to look at South Africa and feel only optimistic at this stage. When you look at what is going on in the country – all the crime, murders and social inequalities – it almost feels like a tsunami of problems coming your way. How is the rhino to stand a chance in all of this? Yet, as the film also argues, the conservation of our rhino offers one way to address these issues. If we were to angle our thinking slightly by moving away from calling it “the rhino poaching problem” towards a perspective that sees the conservation of our wildlife as part of a solution, then there could be reason for optimism. If you think about all the opportunities rhino conservation holds for a whole society, then it should trump the idea of how it can benefit individual people. It will create jobs of many sorts – jobs that are there to protect the rhino, to study the rhino, tourism to bring people in to appreciate the rhino, and much more. It really is a national heritage worth protecting – because in the act of protecting it, we also protect ourselves. But what is more, in protecting the rhino, we elevate ourselves to a level where equality is not only theoretically part of our constitution, but is lived out in reality. As we were an example to the world twenty years ago, we can be an example to the world again by making the ethical decision that holds the lives of both animal and human as essential to our existence as a civilised, modern society.