On April 22, following the Earth Day world premiere of The Last Animals, the Tribeca Film Festival posthumously awarded the fallen wildlife rangers in Garamba National Park with the Disruptor Award for their work and bravery in defending elephants.
The day before, poachers in Garamba National Park killed yet another ranger and soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Joël Meriko Ari and Gerome Bolimola Afokao left behind 11 children. Since I first visited the park in January 2015 while filming The Last Animals, 13 rangers and military have been killed while trying to protect the elephants in Garamba, where terrorism and the ivory trade collide. It’s no coincidence that this happens to be the same place where less than 10 years ago, the Northern White rhino went extinct in the wild. On any given day there are more poachers in the park than giraffe. The park is the size of Delaware and is patrolled by 130 determined rangers, who put their lives on the line alongside the national military thwarting cross boarder incursions from South Sudan and remnants of the Lords’ Resistance Army, amongst others.
Northern White rhinos are now the most critically endangered mammals on the planet with only three left and all in captivity. Historically they inhabited 5 African countries west of the Nile River, but around 2007 they were poached out of Garamba National Park—their last stronghold. Today, the park is a battleground for the ivory of one of the last viable elephant populations in Central Africa.
The year I was born in 1977, the international trade of rhino horn was banned and Northern Whites still lived in Sudan (now South Sudan) and Garmaba National Park, Zaire (now DRC). There were also 22,000 elephants in Garamba National Park then. Today, the elephant population hovers above 1,000, with park rangers and the national military taking causalities as they try to protect the country’s sovereign territory from poachers and militant groups (who are often one and the same) and the animals within the boundaries of the park.
In March, a rhino named Max made headlines after he was shot dead for his horns at a zoo outside of Paris, leading to Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic dehorning their rhinos for fear of a similar type of attack. That might seem alarmist but Dvur Kralove is the only reason there are still any Northern White rhinos left on the planet, and the Czech Republic has also been a hub for rhino horn trafficking. In recent years, there have been multiple museum robberies and criminal networks exploiting trophy hunting loopholes, allowing ‘pseudo hunters’ to legally export their horns after legally killing them for illegal purposes; out of nearly 60 Czech hunters less than ten could produce their horns when law enforcement agents went to inspect them. Some people were paid to hunt rather than paying to hunt, others faced intimidation and signed papers they could not read. Many had never even hunted before. But rather tellingly, a number of the Czech pseudo hunters live within a five-minute walk of each other and are connected in one way or another.
National Parks were set up to provide safe havens for animals, yet on average two to three rhinos are killed on a daily basis in Kruger National Park. Zoos were created to provide people the opportunity to see wild animals in far away places but increasingly they hold “backup” populations for animals critically endangered in the wild. Conservation in the 21st century is not only confusing, but diabolical. The web of criminal activity, bureaucracy and corruption surrounding the illegal and legal wildlife trade create a world of smoke and mirrors. Just a few weeks ago, South Africa announced the country will re-legalize her domestic rhino horn trade, hinting at allowing some international trade even though it’s contraband under international law. Rhino owners in the country often argue that they need the revenue to pay for the protection of their rhinos and are eager to capitalize on their stockpiled horns that are worth more than gold.
Whether “limited international trade” is legally sanctioned or not, South Africans certainly aren’t going to be trading horn amongst each other—it’ll inevitably all be bound for the international marketplace, whether through diplomatic pouches to the far east or in passenger suitcases out of Africa, undermining the campaigns pointing out that rhino horn is keratin (the same substance as human finger nails) as well as celebrity-driven efforts to reduce consumer demand.
International trade bans on ivory and rhino horn were enacted to end trade, yet many countries have maintained domestic ivory markets that are surreptitiously fed by the illegal trade while a handful of countries have pushed for exceptions to the international trade ban to supply domestic markets, creating a two-tier system that’s impossible to regulate—it’s contraband and legal at the same time. Sadly, it looks like rhinos are now going to have to navigate that too, though their place on the planet is far more precarious.
Meanwhile the last three Northern Whites live out their days under 24-hour guard at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya—translocated there from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic in 2009 with the hope they would reproduce there. That never happened in spite of all the efforts that were made to give them optimal conditions. Attempts at a hybrid also failed. Sudan is an old boy, lingering around the age of natural death with low sperm count, and the two females, Najin and Fatu, have cysts that would prevent them from carrying a baby to term. The fact that they are all related may have something to do with why they never mated when they could—after all, natural biology did keep them on the planet for millions of years—but Fatu and Najin still have eggs that can be extracted and there is the frozen sperm of others who have died that could be used.
A recent crowdfunding campaign went viral for #mosteligiblebachelor and has been described as their last chance. It’s now all down to a handful of brilliant and dedicated scientists in Germany, Italy and the U.S. who are working together to reverse the Northern White rhino’s eradication from the planet through stem cell and IVF technology, while developing a surrogacy program so that when a Northern White rhino embryo is artificially produced, a Southern White rhino can carry the baby to term. If the Northern Whites do get a second chance, the question begs to be asked: how are we as a people going to ensure they have a safer planet to live on so that they are not sought after again for their horns?
China banned their domestic rhino horn market in 1993 and recently vowed to close her domestic ivory market by the end of the year. Hong Kong on the other hand is dragging her heels, stating it will take another five years to phase out the commercial sale of ivory. The U.S. enacted a ‘near total ban’ of ivory last summer, but the fact that only six states have taken action means there are another 44 where loopholes need to be closed to help law enforcement. As long as there are legal markets, illegal ivory will leak onto them. New Jersey’s legislation should be an example to them and the rest of the world: it is completely illegal there to sell any ivory or rhino horn in the state. These animals’ parts no longer have any commercial value because New Jersey made the decision to be a humane state, in addition to the Garden State. Reducing consumer demand is critical but cannot single-handedly save rhinos and elephants. Both legal and unregulated ivory and rhino horn markets need to be closed, and environmental crimes need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The story of the Northern Whites is foreboding—what happens when too little is done too late in the face of all the will and commitment in the world. The illegal wildlife trade is a global problem that requires a global and united solution, from consumer responsibility to government action. This is not just an issuing plaguing Africa and Asia, it’s also a domestic issue in the United States that has far-reaching consequences—contributing to extinction and fueling conflict in far-away places. If we don’t want theirs to be the last species on the planet, now is the time to take action.
Kate Brooks is an American photojournalist who has chronicled conflict and human rights issues for nearly two decades. She began her career in Russia at the age of 20 while documenting child abuse in state orphanages. The resulting photographs were published worldwide and used by the Human Rights Watch to campaign for orphans’ rights. Following 9/11, Brooks moved to Pakistan to photograph the impact of U.S. foreign policy and spent the next 10 years covering conflict across the Middle East. Her introspective collection of essays and photographs, In the Light of Darkness: A Photographer’s Journey After 9/11, was selected as one of the best photography books of 2011. Brooks’ work has also been published in TIME, Newsweek, Smithsonian, and The New Yorker. Her directorial debut documentary, The Last Animals, recently had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.