Milking the Rhino, Sunday on Global Voices

Posted on September 6, 2012

This week, Global Voices brings you Milking the Rhino by filmmaker David E. Simpson, who provided us an update from the film. The documentary airs Sunday, September 9 on the WORLD Channel.

Milking the Rhino examines the deepening conflict between rural Africans and animals in the ever-shrinking African wilderness, offering a complex, intimate portrait of rural Africans at the forefront of community-based conservation — a revolution that is turning poachers into preservationists and local people into the stewards of their land. In the four years since putting the final touches on Milking the Rhino, the film has traveled to six continents (we’re still working on Antarctica), won a slew of festival awards and – most gratifying of all – inspired new thinking about conservation and sustainable development. The two locations portrayed in the film experienced tourism boosts from the exposure, but have otherwise been buffeted by the vicissitudes of economy, politics, population growth, and climate change.

Conservation at Il Ngwesi Group Ranch, Kenya

The final scene of the film sees northern Kenya getting relief from the worst drought in half a century. Unfortunately, that was not the end of troubles for Il Ngwesi and neighboring Maasai communities. At the close of 2007, a disputed national election resulted in widespread tribal violence and the decimation of tourism across Kenya. The Il Ngwesi lodge sent home 2/3 of its staff. During the unrest, the Il Ngwesi game rangers stepped up security patrols, helping to limit violence and poaching to negligible levels. But then Mother Nature (and climate change) added insult to injury. Two more droughts have hit, with a severity usually associated with a 100-year-cycle. In other words, east Africa has seen three “droughts of the century” in the last six years. 

Fortunately for Il Ngwesi, tourism has slowly made its way back to near-normal levels. In fact, the last decade offers a clear example of community conservation’s diversifying effect on a local economy: with Il Ngwesi’s decision to conserve their habitat and build a Maasai owned and run-lodge, cattle herding is no longer the only game in town. When drought hit the livestock hard, wildlife fared better than cattle, and tourism dollars lessoned the community’s suffering and when tourism tanked in 2008, the rains were good that year and sustained the cattle. Unlike many other small, indigenous villages in northern Kenya that are losing their young people to cities, Il Ngwesi is maintaining both its traditional ways and its population. 

Recent Il Ngwesi projects fuelled by conservation-related income include: an HIV/Aids program that has employed several dozen people from the community, a training project to improve the quality and market-access for women’s handicrafts, upgrades to roads and the landing strip, an elephant fence around the school, renovation of teachers’ housing, a mobile bank, a new sinkhole, and water pipeline repairs. In Milking the Rhino’s other location, Namibia, the number of communal conservancies continues to grow: from about 50 at the time of filming to 76 in mid-2012. Marienfluss Conservancy has profited from a new lodge and other joint ventures. John Kasona, co-director of IRDNC and who is prominently featured in the film, has seen his star on the rise in recent years. His various travels to promote Namibia’s conservancy movement included a talk at the prestigious TED Conference of innovative ideas in 2010, where he brought down the house.

Members of Il Ngwesi, Kenya, watching Milking the Rhino

Prior to its first PBS broadcast, Milking the Rhino premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, widely considered the most prestigious documentary fest on the planet. Since then, Milking the Rhino has received hundreds of public screenings in 25 countries, at events that include festivals, conferences, and educational forums. In the countries where it was filmed and other African nations, it has screened in swanky theater rooms and also on a bedsheet from a generator-powered projector. It has been warmly praised for its realistic portrayal of community conservation in all its complexity. 

The film has won numerous awards and accolades but most rewarding is the way it has inspired new thinking in classrooms and in the field -- by students, conservationists, and local people looking to solve their own conservation and sustainable development quandaries. One of the accomplishments we are most proud of happened at Penn State University, where Milking the Rhino inspired faculty and students in the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program to create the Milking the Rhino Innovative Solutions Showcase. It’s an annual competition in which students from across the world team up and think outside the box, trying to find new solutions to problems plaguing African indigenous communities. After researching and honing their ideas, each team produces a three-minute video “pitch,” which are then judged by an international, interdisciplinary panel. More about Milking the Rhino can be found on the official website. Milking the Rhino will premiere as part of the Global Voices series on the WORLD Channel, Sunday, September 9 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). Starting September 10, the documentary will be available to view in entirety online via PBS Video (for a limited time only).


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