Transitions film festival: A vestige of hope for the last rhinos

Any doubt that rhinos are rapidly being poached to extinction is dispelled in the first few seconds of Vestige, an extraordinarily intimate and moving documentary that will screen as part the Transitions Film Festival at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova later this month.

The opening sequence depicts the night time patrol of armed anti-poaching rangers who look for signs of poaching in South Africa’s vast Kruger National Park. Tense and disorienting, it could easily be a scene out of a moody thriller such as Sicario or Zero Dark Thirty.

Vestige is the first feature length documentary directed by Australian filmmaker Mark Halliday. The film debuted last year in London at the Raindance Film Festival and has been praised by eminent feature film director George Miller. Vestige tells the stories of several different people at the frontline of the battle to save the remaining South African rhinos from being slaughtered for their horn, which currently is one of the most expensive substances on Earth despite the fact that rhino horn has no medicinal or therapeutic value whatsoever.

Similar to the war on terror, the war on wildlife takes the form of an insurgency in which there is no frontline and none of the insurgents wears a uniform.

Like all wars in which humans engage, the war on rhinos ultimately is absurd. Since the horn is only of practical use to the animal on which it grows, the trade in rhino horn is motivated exclusively by greed. The poaching of the animals is also notable for the extreme cruelty involved. 

In places like Kruger National Park, which in a more humane world would provide sanctuary for all its animals, the war on wildlife clearly is just that. Similar to other borderless, seemingly interminable conflicts the so-called war on drugs, or the war on terror, the war on wildlife takes the form of an insurgency in which there is no frontline and none of the insurgents wears a uniform. While the horn itself is exported to rich customers located in faraway places like China and Vietnam, the people who actually do the killing are Africans.

Since all the poachers want to do is take the horn before they are caught, it is common for the animal to have the front of its head hacked off while it is still alive and then left to choke and bleed to death. The poachers typically do not fire any more bullets than are necessary to disable the animal. Very often, a female is left to die with an orphaned calf left standing defenceless beside it. The calf is ignored by the poachers only because it has no horn.

Wars bring out the best in some people as well as the worst in others. Vestige features a remarkable cast of South Africans of different backgrounds and perspectives united in their dedication to saving rhinos.

The film also includes a thought-provoking interview with a rhino poacher identified as Anton, who says that he regrets killing rhino – or at least is aware that the resource is limited – but insists he has no better choice: “If the rhino goes extinct it will be a very bad feeling. But what can we do because of poverty? It is a very sad and painful feeling because we have limited money and sustainability, we don’t have a choice. Yeah if we could get jobs, or sustainable employment, there wouldn’t be any need for us to poach.”

All of the people featured in Vestige who work to stop rhino poaching have made some significant personal sacrifice for the cause. Among these heroic individuals are Nunu Jobe, a remarkably eloquent Zulu tracker who believes that only by saving the natural world can we save ourselves, and Dr Michelle Otto, a vet who lives on the vast private rhino reserve owned by wealthy farmer John Hume and devotes her life to trimming the horns of rhinos humanely in order to make them a less attractive target for poachers.

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As Dr Otto explains, rhino horn consists of keratin, the same substance found in human finger nails. If the horn is trimmed carefully without damaging the growth plate underneath, then the animal is not harmed and the horn eventually will grow back. She acknowledges that trimming the horn, which cannot be sold legally, may simply buy the animals a little time.

Also featured unforgettably in Vestige is Sergeant Tumi Morema, a veteran anti-poaching ranger with the heavily armed Hemmersbach Rhino Force who tells the story of a violent confrontation with a poacher who, while being arrested, nearly stabbed him to death. Towards the end of the film we travel with Sgt Morema to visit the remote Nourish Eco Village, whose founder Sarah Bergs works with local children to teach sustainability and an appreciation for wildlife.

Should the trade in rhino horn be outlawed altogether, or would the best way to save the rhino be to legalise and regulate the trade in order to bring down prices and enfranchise local communities?              

Director Mark Halliday speaks warmly of filming with the people who appear in Vestige. “Making this film is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before”, Halliday told me. “Surrendering myself to Nunu in the African bush listening to his deeply profound and life changing wisdom to this day, is still the best day of my life. Hearing Tumi reveal what compels him to continue to fight in protecting rhinos even though it might seem like a lost cause was incredibly inspiring not to mention getting to spend time at Michelle’s property on John’s farm. She too was a huge inspiration. It was through spending time at her property and listening to her dedication to protecting this magnificent creature that I decided to champion her.”

Halliday points out that while there is widespread agreement that rhino poaching must be stopped before it is too late to save the species from extinction, one major problem with the anti-poaching effort is division among the various organisations dedicated to saving rhinos as to the best way to defeat the poachers.

“The issue is also deeply complex in ways of dealing with solutions” says Halliday. “In my opinion, there are too many groups out there claiming to have the be all and end all of solutions without joining forces and funds to fight this issue. There seems to be too many sceptical people within the industry not trusting one another which I believe is one of the most detrimental hurdles facing the plight of the rhinos. It’s incredibly frustrating … and that’s not even mentioning the corruption.”

Should the trade in rhino horn be outlawed altogether, or would the best way to save the rhino be to legalise and regulate the trade in order to bring down prices and enfranchise local communities? Adding to the challenging moral and economic questions is the complicated politics of post-apartheid South Africa, in which wildlife conservation is not always viewed straightforwardly as an issue confronting every citizen equally.
Like all of the animals alive right now on the planet, the dwindling population of rhinos is entirely at the mercy of humans to either save or lose forever. For its part, Vestige is a candid and urgent depiction of the horrific reality of the rhino’s increasingly desperate plight.

Vestige screens on February 23, 2019 at Cinema Nova Melbourne as part of the 2019 Transitions Film Festival

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