Milking the Rhino (Director: David E. Simpson): As a child growing up in the 70s, I was a huge fan of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, even as I laughed at some of the staginess (e.g. Marlin Perkins: “Jim will wrestle the giant man-eating crocodile while I stay here in the jeep.”). What I didn’t realize at that age was that the image of the wealthy white big game hunter was simply changing its face. Ever since white men “discovered” Africa, they’ve always wanted to assert their will over its wildlife as well as its people. By the 70s, hunting was giving way to “safari” trips where tourists could observe game up close and shoot with cameras instead of guns, but the dynamic hadn’t changed all that much. And what was always missing from the picture was any idea of the people who actually lived on the land. This is the “myth of Africa” promoted by tourism operators from the beginning, and nowadays, it’s alive and well.
The title of David E. Simpson’s lushly photographed film comes from the conflict between wildlife conservation and the needs of cattle herding tribes like the Maasai in Kenya and the Himba in Namibia. The film explores some of the “new conservation” approaches being tried in those two countries. Communities are establishing their own conservation areas and running their own tourist lodges to generate income. Meanwhile, the traditional cattle herding lifestyle is threatened by the disappearance of grazing land to accomodate these new wildlife preserves. In addition, the presence of wild animals (including predators like lions and cheetahs) close to herds of cattle that represent the livelihood (and indeed, the manhood) of many leads to inevitable conflicts. Cattle have always been the traditional source of income for the Maasai and the Himba, and herdsmen don’t want to risk losing their animals to wild predators. As Helen Gichohi, director of the African Wildlife Federation says, conservationists are hoping that the success of the tourist lodges will make the communities begin to see wildlife as “a second cattle.”
Less than twenty years ago, many of the areas featured in the film were barren of wild animals due mostly to poaching. By focusing on long term profitability instead of quick gain, the new conservationists hope to get the communities onside, and it looks like it’s beginning to work. During one seemingly endless drought season in Kenya, the community was able to support itself on the income from its tourist lodge, even though many of its cattle died. Diversifying their sources of income can only make these rural communities more viable in the long term, even though tourism is not completely immune to droughts of its own.
The film is beautifully photographed and highlights important work, and yet for me it never rises to greatness. Part of the problem might be that in trying to turn our eyes away from the beauty of the wildlife and the landscape toward messy and complex human interactions, it punctures our idea of the “myth of Africa”. This is actually a good thing, but it might make the film hard to love. As well, even though the transitions between the two cultures and countries is clear, the differences between their conservation approaches isn’t quite as clear cut, leaving me a little bit confused. I actually think focusing more tightly on one community and one approach might have made the film’s impact stronger. As well, as someone who wants to support responsible tourism, I could have used a bit more practical information on which lodges are fully run by their own communities. As we see in one segment, there are a few places where the profits are being siphoned off to outsiders.
This isn’t the sort of “Planet Earth” wildlife film you might be used to seeing, and for that very reason it’s an eye-opener and definitely worth seeing.
Milking the Rhino screens on Wednesday, February 11, at 6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. at the Bloor Cinema