“This is what extinction looks like.”
James Mwenda, who looked after Sudan, the last male white rhino on earth until his death in March 2018, says. The auditorium showing David Humbridge and Andrew Harrison’s award winning feature documentary is full with three screens set up and a fund raising auction for the Ol Pajeta conservancy which raises about a million shillings.
Two rhino caretakers’ humble lives are explored. James Mwenda was a gardener and understands human wildlife conflict from first hand experiences. In the film, he develops a deep bond with Sudan and feels that Sudan wants someone to speak up for him. The other keeper is Joseph Wachira, fondly Jojo, who runs around amusing the rhinos. Mwenda says of him that Jojo “has been in the wild so long he thinks he’s a rhino.” Working away from home for ten months of the year, the caretakers sleep with their animals, feeding them and on occasion have a night off to play pool with other wildlife rangers. Jojo’s wife is expecting a baby and his affections are torn between the work he loves and the family for whom he works.
The northern white rhino is a subspecies of white rhino, which used to range over parts of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Years of widespread poaching and civil war in their home lands have devastated northern white rhino populations, and they are now extinct in the wild. Only two remain, both on Ol Pejeta Conservancy. They are the most sociable of the rhinos.
Sudan was born in Southern Sudan, captured at two years old and taken to the Czech Republic where he was brought up in captivity on a Czech Safari Park. After unsuccessful breeding attempts, he was brought back to Africa to live out his days at Ol Pajeta where he had to be guarded day and night for his precious horn.
To emulate wallowing, which rhinos do to cool down, protect their skin from UV light and from parasites, the caretakers massage Sudan with wet mud, they dress his sores and when he simply can’t get up, Dr Morne de la Ray is called in to euthanise him.
When Mwenda came to work with Sudan, there were four northern white rhinos – Sudan, Suni, Sudan’s daughter Najin and her daughter Fatu. Suni died of natural causes. It was then discovered that Najin has weak hocks and wouldn’t be able to carry a pregnancy whilst Fatu has endometriosis and wouldn’t be able to get pregnant. But recent successes in fertilising seven of their eggs with frozen sperm from two deceased bulls – Suni and Saut, has scientists looking towards surrogate mothers in southern white rhino herds.
However, Richard Vigne CEO of Ol Pajeta conservancy later says that whilst conservation was becoming more mainstream, it was difficult to predict the future of the northern white rhinos as the embryos will have to be safely implanted and if they were carried to full term and birth, the young ones would have to be taught how to be northern whites by southern whites.
Speaking after the film, Mwenda describes how when he went to Hong Kong to raise awareness of conservation and to dissuade people from using rhino horn; “Children cried when the plight of rhinos was explained to them. In China paracetamol has been made from rhino horn for 600 years. Some children said their parents had rhino horn in the house. The countries surrounding China are still demanding this”.
A cinematographer & commercial documentary filmmaker this is David Hambridge’s debut feature as the director, cinematographer and producer. He proposed that “media controls the mind. If an animated film about Sudan and extinction were made, it would change the demand for horn.”
David believes losing an animal to extinction should not only be experienced by the world, but “it should be felt” too. With KIFARU, David’s goal is to share that feeling of extinction with a worldwide audience for the first time, and hopefully the last.
Andrew Harrison Brown co-produced and edited the film. Andrew, having witnessed how stories told through images transcended barriers and acted as levers for change. And thus the proud descendant of Chief Tarhe of the Wyandot-Huron nation and a father of two became the founder of his production company Ragtag Tribe Films.
The film has pretty much everyone in tears. And we believe it wholeheartedly, humbled, properly converted to conservation and to stop wasting stuff. What we don’t see enough of or at all, is the danger lurking behind the bushes. Whilst rhinos have no natural predators, poachers from nearby areas driven by conflict over land, poverty, drought and a lack of opportunities are being enticed by companies that can ship rhino horn or ivory in large quantities, past authorities and into the hands of wealthy traders.
Rhino horn in Vietnam for instance, is considered the best of the best, to possess it is to possess an elixir, should it be needed. Rhino horn consumers will often also buy other illegal products such as bear bile and tiger bone too. Many customers are aware that the animals have to be killed to get at the medicine, but since they are not personally affected, even by their extinction, they do not care. In fact the rarer it gets, the more it is desired and gifted to special people thus acquiring a status of prestige and power, since it is also only available through selective networks.