Production Diary:

The poached black rhino in HORN (Part 1)

The heat is excruciating. Even in the air-conditioned bakkie I can feel it pressing down on the roof, pushing its way through the steel. But I’m not really thinking about the heat right now. I am clinging on for dear life as the bakkie bounces along a dirt road only accessible in a 4x4. It doesn’t stop for a moment. Up and down I bounce, first hitting my head against the back of the seat and then the roof. I lock my right hand around the handle above me in the attempt to stabilise myself. It doesn’t seem to make one bit of difference though. My second hand is out of commission as it is wrapped around my camera. I glance over at David, who is sitting to my left. He is struggling even more than me. Not only is he bigger than I am, but he is also protecting the lifeline of our documentary – his Canon 300C. He doesn’t complain, though. How typical, I think with amusement. Filmmakers are mostly the same. Kit and story first … body, safety and health a distant second.

While we suffer in silence, the two officials in the front chat away happily about logistical changes they’ve made in the park. They seem blissfully ignorant of our antics in the back. I realise it must have been some time since they last saw each other, because they’ve been talking non-stop since we left the manager’s office. I want to listen and pay attention, but no, my mind is racing and my body is being moved wilfully, out of control. Ever so often the driver throws his chin over his shoulder and asks us if we are still alright. We’re an hour into our two-hour drive and yes, remarkably, we’re still fine. The third member of our team, Jeff, didn’t come with us this time. He said he’d rather not expose himself to the scene we’re filming today and after the month he’s had on the production I can understand why he needs a bit of a break.

I myself am both exhausted and rather apprehensive about what I’m about to witness. Over the last two months, I rarely had a moment to myself. When I did find the odd hour or two, I spent it chasing contacts or used the opportunity to telephone home to Vienna. Last night during one such moment after dinner, I found myself calling my father, who with a similar personality to me seemed to understand the reasons behind my hesitation. I told him about my concern of becoming another one of those filmmakers who found more value in the bankable images that shock rather than those less exciting images that force people to evaluate themselves. Throughout the production of HORN, I’ve been adamant to concentrate almost exclusively on the human side of the rhino-poaching crisis. With people – that is where everything starts and ends. However, I’ve just been told that as of August 2013 no other filmmaking team has yet been allowed access to film a freshly poached rhino carcass in the affected region – let alone a forensic dissection. Naturally, this was an exciting opportunity. At the same time I realised, apart from the two people helping me shoot the film, this project has so far been a one-woman show. The likelihood that I would get any images out before the BBC, ITV or some other big broadcaster released a program was slim to none. So, the exclusivity of the images didn’t appear to have any baring here. That wasn’t what was bothering me, anyway. The more programs about what is happening in South Africa the better, I’d say. What bothered me more was whether showing a mutilated carcass would in actual fact distract from the film’s social and political statement. ‘Well, would it?’, I asked. After all, my mission is to probe why we as a country are allowing this to happen in the first place, not what is being done to the animals. We all know what is happening to them and how brutal it is. I wanted the film not to be an attempt to foreground the facts of rhino poaching. I wanted it to rather shine a critical, yet hopeful light on the social side of poaching – on the economic and cultural reasons that allow for poaching to flourish inside South Africa. HORN should therefore predominantly be a film about the people who are living in and around heavily poached areas. It should show that rhinos could contribute to rebuilding a fast declining nation, provide employment, housing development and social cohesion. It should show the animal alive, kept healthy and protected instead of ruthlessly exploited for the sake of short-term profit by a few. ‘You’ve been saying that all along’, my father reassures. Of course, I have. But also, the nagging thought entered my mind – do I really want to see a mutilated rhino in the flesh? If that was not enough, I was told it was a black rhino. I’ve been a bush going girl for as long as I can remember, but the black rhino is a species that I saw for the first time only yesterday? Does the second black rhino I ever get to see really have to be a poached one? In the end, my father didn’t have to say much really – he patiently took on the role as a very expensive international sounding board. My monologue culminated into the conclusion: as a filmmaker, I have no right to say anything about wildlife crime without evaluating my subjective reactions upon witnessing the effects of this kind of crime. So it was settled.

Lawrence Munro – Rhino Operations Unit Manager and ZAP-Wing Coordinator at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife

The whole opportunity came about unexpectedly just after finishing an interview with Lawrence Munro. He is the Rhino Operations Unit Manager and ZAP-Wing Coordinator at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Not only is he an expert ranger in the field of rhino conservation, but he also has a thorough intellectual understanding of conservation and protection strategies. He is further heavily involved in Project Rhino, which is a refreshing initiative seeking to streamline cooperation between the various private and governmental organisations that protect rhinos. At the time we met him in 2013, eighteen conservation agencies were working together in the project to combat rhino poaching. Since getting involved with rhino conservation over the last few years, I’ve been amazed just how many organisations refuse to work together for fear of losing business – especially security companies in the private sector. Fervent backstabbing and bad-mouthing often prevent any progress across large sections of the country. Projects that seek to unify the country behind a single goal are few and far in between.

While walking down the airstrip from where we were filming, Munro received a call with the news every ranger has unfortunately come to expect. ‘Not another one!’ His dejection was obvious. ‘How old?’ From the context I gathered that the carcass was about a day and half old. It had been shot two nights earlier and was found by a patrol over the weekend. The crime scene investigation team was going out first thing the next morning. Having hung up, Munro immediately filled us in on the details. I decided to tentatively ask whether we might be allowed to join the team the next day to document the process. Munro fell silent for a while as he considered. He has impressed all of us since we arrived in KwaZulu-Natal. An intellectual ranger, passionate about conservation and above all a man with honourable intensions. He has been one of the kindest and most articulate individuals I’ve come across during the whole project. And I could sense from his thoughtful silence that he sincerely wanted to help us.

Jeff noted the other day that support of this kind has been a characteristic of our project and it has been a humbling experience. Ever since I’ve embarked on this documentary I’ve often felt like an outsider, an impostor in a world in which I’m regarded as uninformed simply by virtue of the fact that I don’t live in South Africa any longer. Even people close to me questioned my persistent involvement with issues regarding South Africa – especially related to economics and general ethics. What is more, I’m a filmmaker and thus a member of that blasted band of people, who for the sake of a story always meddle in the business of the real men and women making a difference on the ground. Honesty compels me not to argue with such an opinion of my profession. Many filmmakers are insincere, chasing after sensation, money and the latest topical fad. Filmmakers do in fact take away the time and attention of people who are actively working to prevent disasters, crime and injustices. We can be annoying, very demanding and only involved with the issue as long as the production process and budget last. As soon as the final shot has been filmed, we can leave a location polluted or destroyed, while forgetting that the subjects of our films involve the actual pain and suffering of real people. Equally though, we can be guilty of none of those things, instead harbouring a deep desire to raise awareness, affect the world positively and make a difference in the lives of people. In fact, most filmmakers I know, including myself, are desperately trying to weave something good out of the chaotic mayhem we call our contemporary global society. However, I cannot help but also see these same issues reflected in the environment I’ve walked into with this film. It is a deeply suspicious world full of intrigue, hatred, racism, self-promotion, greed, corruption, frustrating ignorance and mindless destruction. Yet, at the same time, I’ve marvelled at the sincerity of good-natured and hard-working individuals seeking at personal costs to make a difference to a situation that seems almost hopeless. Within their world and mine there are good men and women to be found in the midst of a whole lot of badness.

‘There is one thing I could try’, this good man said while dialling a number on his phone. ‘I can’t promise anything, but it’s worth a shot.’ For the next ten minutes, Munro explained to one of his colleagues who we were, what we do and that after spending the last three days with us, he couldn’t see a reason why we should not be trusted. He fell silent again as his colleague talked to a third person on the other end of the line. Then, suddenly he perked up again. I could hear his colleague returning the conversation to Munro. Looking at me, Munro then inquired, ‘Can you agree not to reveal the location?’ Of course. ‘Are you okay with not filming any faces?’ Done. ‘Can you pay for another filming permit?’ I paused, but then – if I must… Nodding understandingly, he turned to relay my acceptance of the terms.

The next morning at 6.00am, I found myself signing yet another filming permit on the hood of a car. The amount due is R4750.00 and although I knew there was nothing to be done it annoyed me nevertheless that I’m required to pay so much money each time we film in a national park – especially as an independent filmmaker. Every free speech bone in my body rebelled. ‘But hey’, I thought, ‘it’s for conservation remember?’ Or so I was told.

We were still waiting for another person to join us. So, while we waited I decided to stroll away from the car a bit. Looking around, I sank my hands deep into my pockets. The August air can be rather biting, yet in a matter of hours I knew I’d long for the cold. The humidity would challenge my every movement without mercy. I became aware of my breath clouding up and trailing off like my thoughts. I only met Dr Ian Player a few days ago in Nelspruit. His connection to this area must be why I thought of him then. This emblem of rhino conservation was entering the final years of his life, and still he agreed to see me for an interview. Despite the obvious frailty of his body, his mind was as sharp as ever and his passion for conservation unequivocal. At one point, he described to me a story he must’ve told a thousand times by then – the moment he saw his first rhino. It was in this area in 1952 that he saw them, I thought. ‘I just arrived at Umfolozi Game Reserve and it was one of those misty, overcast, slightly drizzled days. Out of the bush came these rhinos and there was steam coming off them. There were hundreds of flies buzzing around them’. The ancient, prehistoric creature clearly made a dramatic impact on him. ‘I knew that my life somehow will be associated with them. I just had that intuitive feeling and indeed it turned out to be.’ His voice trailed off a bit as I saw tears forming in his eyes. ‘Ja,’ he sighed heavily, ‘I had to fight very hard. But with great willingness, because they are wonderful, innocent beasts. Absolutely innocent. The white rhino is non-aggressive. The black rhino can be aggressive, but the white rhino not at all. You can clap your hands at them, they’ll run away’. That is very true, I thought. David and I’ve been ten metres away from a wild white rhino recently. I was nervous at first, because we were completely on our own, without any form of protection. But it only stared back at us – annoyed that we blocked its way to wherever it was going. They really don’t stand a chance if that’s the way they behave.

Fever Trees

Next my eyes focused on a cluster of fever trees

Next, my eyes focused on a cluster of fever trees. As soon as we arrived in KwaZulu-Natal I noticed how abundant they are there. I never knew that. To me, they’ve always been an endangered species up north. I remember being involved in a school project when I was eight years old planting fever tree seedlings, ‘because they were so endangered’. If only we could do something like that for the rhinos. If every child could throw a seed in the soil and out popped a rhino. I smiled slightly, realising the absurd location my thought-train took me.

Just then another car pulled up. We should leave, I heard. David and I got in our rental car, while the officials travelled in their own. Before we could start our bumpy journey, we had to first drive to a totally different park, which was several hours away. Arriving there we would change vehicles and travel all the way to the Mozambique border. Cars haven’t been my most favourite things recently. Our previous vehicle broke down four times before I had to close my eyes and dish out some cash to rent a brand new one. It cost me a lot of nerves and ate into the budget. Though, I was thankful that finally we had a vehicle we could rely on – especially in the secluded area we were now going into.

I bumped my head one final time before the 4x4 came to a halt – this time only, I hit it against the seat in front of me. It’s been six hours since I’ve signed the permit at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi and we were almost there now – only thirty minutes to go. We were to join a convoy for the last stretch. They were already waiting for us as we pulled up. I noticed one bakkie was filled with at least eight workers, who I later found out were there to systematically slice open the rhino in search of the fatal bullet. Another group were people like us, simple observers. They looked more important than us, though. I got out of the car and as soon as I did, the heat wrapped around my body like a python. An immediate respect boiled up in me for the rangers constantly working under these extreme conditions – and it was theoretically still winter. I could see another woman there as well. I’ve not seen many over the last few weeks and I was curious about her. She was armed with a clipboard and pen. Throughout the course of the afternoon, she made notes about the incident. When we got to the rhino later, I was surprised at her callous way around the carcass. Chatting away and making jokes, she seemed completely unaffected by the situation. It quickly started to annoy me, because from my perspective the whole experience was decidedly serious, even traumatic and anything but standard. I guess people cope differently. She must’ve seen hundreds of carcasses by then.

The Border between South Africa and Mozambique

Apart from the convoy and two small buildings, the border was deserted. Nobody was there. No soldier. No armed ranger. Nobody. It didn’t come as a surprise to me though. The border issue has been one of the most contentious points of argumentation within the whole rhino-poaching crisis. As Dianne Kohler-Barnard later told me in Durban: ‘The fact that South Africa has virtually no borders means that our borders are totally porous. We have foreigners from the surrounding countries … simply walking into South Africa demanding free medical care, free education, free everything. That in turn relates to xenophobia and other issues of a social nature … Looking at the rhino problem had been side-lined.’ What is more, how is one to effectively patrol a 400km border – especially if there are no fences and even the outposts, like the one I was looking at, were deserted without a soul? As we set off again for the final thirty minutes of driving, I spotted a duiker running long the border away from the convoy. It frantically tried to get away from us, but never thought to dash away into the bush. It stayed running along the road next to the border. Ever so often, it would stop, look around at us then dash away again. After about 5 kilometres the poor thing was so tired that it jumped over into the no-man’s-land between South Africa and Mozambique. I lost it for a second, but when we past the spot where I last saw it, the duiker was lying down, panting for air – seemingly accepting potential death as our bakkies advanced towards it and past.

Read Part 2

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