Wild Shots: undercover heroines

Today is World Rhino Day and Wild talks to two inspiring speakers at this year’s Wild Shots Wildlife Photography Symposium to be held in Johannesburg and Cape Town in October. What happens when a journalist and filmmaker tackle the dark topic of rhino poaching? They produce a gripping documentary taking us undercover and behind the scenes of this cruel and deadly crisis. By Arnold Ras

For Susan Scott and Bonné de Bod, creators of the highly anticipated documentary Stroop, rhino poaching is much more than a war. As speakers at this year’s Wild Shots event in Cape Town and Johannesburg in October, they will give attendees an exclusive behind the scenes look at their many rhino poaching investigations. You do not want to miss this!

Wild asked Bonné and Susan a few questions:

Your topic at this year’s Wild Shots is Shooting Undercover – investigating the rhino poaching crisis

SS: I attended last year’s Wild Shots in Johannesburg and was really moved by the talks. Having just returned from several weeks of undercover filming in Asia, it felt surreal sitting there looking at these gorgeous images of elephants, pangolins and rhinos knowing that we had just seen their body parts on counters, in the hands of carvers and cancer patients. If we admire their beauty and the pursuit of showcasing that, we must also be grounded to the fact that their beauty is disappearing. I think we should not be afraid to address that.

BdB: I agree so strongly with that. Whether we are photographers or admirers of photography, we all live and work in the source site, so we really should know what is happening at the demand sites, because ultimately it affects us.

The face of rhino poaching is truly horrific, to say the least. What drives you to keep making a difference despite all the terror you witness?

BdB: It does get to one, I cannot hide that. I’ve attended the scenes of many murdered rhino, I’ve seen rhinos still alive with half hacked-off faces… What unbelievable pain. It shocks you to your core. The cruelty is totally beyond anything I can think of. Pure evil and human greed. And I do sometimes wonder when, if ever, we will defeat it. But then I remember why I’m doing this, why I’m making this film. We as humans have a moral responsibility to protect them, to protect all living species. It’s not about us, it’s about them. As soon as you do this, it becomes easier to deal with all the heart-breaking scenes we capture on camera.

SS: I always thought the rhino poaching crisis was about the rhinos, the animals. And yes, of course it is, but it’s the inspiring people we’ve met, who we’ve filmed along the way. They keep me going. As filmmakers we briefly enter their lives and leave when we’re done filming. They have to live with this 24/7. It has changed their lives – not just from a terror or security aspect, but everything right down to their relationships with their partners.

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Will South Africa’s national parks and reserves win the war against rhino poaching?

BdB: Seeing the demand in Asia was quite frightening. And while I am in no way undermining the efforts of demand reduction organisations, I think we need to face the reality that the desire for pure wildlife products will never stop. Unless the desire for the product disappears, it will always be a war.

SS: Ja, that’s a tough one. Rangers have told us that when they read the public’s comments about the despair over losing yet another rhino, it really affects them. Will we win? Won’t we win? Rhino poaching is a huge multi-national criminal business. The syndicates will endeavour to keep their businesses going. I don’t view it as winnable or not winnable, but rather getting there slowly with optimal knowledge.

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The effort from the parks and reserves has been huge. The public are always quick to criticise and I do feel that’s not fair. How do you militarise a natural space without affecting the ecological and tourism systems?
– Susan Scott

As an award-winning filmmaker and a journalist, why did you choose rhino poaching as subject?

BdB: I was doing a story about rhino poaching a couple of years ago for 50|50 and as part of the story we took a look at how investigations are conducted at a crime scene. I remember walking with the rangers to the scene not knowing that this would be a turning point for me. I was about to see the cruelty of humanity – two poached rhino carcasses lying opposite one another. I had never seen anything quite like it. I sat between the carcasses to say my lines to the camera. I was suddenly confronted with so many questions. How can humanity be so unbelievably cruel? How can we as South Africans allow this? I immediately knew I had to do something more.

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SS: I remember thinking while filming in the Kruger National Park for a wild dog film, that surely someone was covering this aspect of the rhino poaching crisis – the foot soldiers on the ground. That’s where it started for us. And it’s not just the rangers, but the vets, rehabilitators, prosecutors, private rhino owners, activists… It’s a massive topic with so many people involved.

During your investigations, what’s the one experience you will never forget?

SS: An interview we did with a rhino horn user in Vietnam. It took weeks of searching, investigating and thousands of rands and miles to get this interview. It was obviously one of the most important interviews we had ever done, but it was a very emotional moment. Not in that either of us was upset outwardly, but that we had to hold back so much of what we had seen on the battleground. Here we were in a beautiful house in an upmarket area of Hanoi drinking tea, waiting until the family were comfortable enough for us to do the interview. I wanted to scream with frustration at the normality of all of this. It was a crazy, surreal moment.

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BdB: Susan is right. This woman was showing me how she uses rhino horn… firstly grinding it. I took the piece of horn in my hands, looked her right in the eye and said that for me, this is a symbol of death. She simply said that there’s no connection for her. The piece of horn is exactly that. An item. An extremely valuable thing to own. That was a wow moment for me. To have a horn-user say that there is no recognition of death or suffering, that she didn’t feel anything for the rhino because there is no connection. That’s something that will stay with me forever.

Tell us more about Stroop. And when will it hit our screens?

BdB: We are currently in edit and have been doing some last-minute pick-up shoots. We are hoping to finish the cut by the end of the year.

SS: It’s been a long journey. When we started, we thought this was going to be a six-month project. Max, nine months! But it’s so complicated and there are so many facets to it, we just could not leave huge chunks out.

Want to own your very own digital copy of the documentary StroopPre-order a digital download and help Bonné and Susan to complete the film independently.

This article first appeared on Wild Card.