VMDIFF 2020 | Kifaru – The Rhino’s Last Stand

We’ve all read the headlines and watched the David Attenborough documentaries. By now it should be no secret that human greed has catapulted our world into the midst of an extinction crisis. The facts are devastating. According to the World Wildlife Fund scientists are estimating that between 0.01% and 0.1% of species are becoming extinct each year (that’s between 200 and 2,000 on the lower rate and 10,000 and 100,000 on the higher estimate). It’s truly infuriating to ask ourselves how we’ve let it get this far. And even scarier to ask the question: Is there any going back?

Documentary filmmaker David Hambridge offers an incredibly personal insight into this topic in Kifaru, which tells the story of the last standing male white rhino, Sudan, and his caretakers who are dedicated to fighting for his species. The connection between humans and animals, the reality of animal poaching and what it means to be a “free” animal are all ideas that are explored in this documentary. Somehow both heartbreaking and encouraging, Kifaru documents the urgency of wildlife conservation through the eyes of those willing to make sacrifices for these beautiful animals.

Captured over approximately four years, the majority of Kifaru is set in the Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy located in central Kenya. “Kifaru” is Swahili for rhinos and these animals are the main focus of this film: Sudan, his daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. At the film’s beginning, these are the only three white rhinos left in the world. They live under 24-hour surveillance at the conservancy. The risk of poachers is far too high should they be released into the wild.

Sudan is named after his place of birth and was originally rescued and relocated to a zoo in the Czech Republic. In his old age he was moved to Ol Pejeta along with his captive-raised daughter and her offspring. It’s clear that these animals don’t have the freedom they deserve and it’s dangerous that they are so trusting of the humans who look after them. But the facts are that the commercial value of rhino horn is incredibly high in a country where many families are surviving on the equivalent of $1 USD a day. Freedom is not an option for these animals so Ol Pejeta is the next best thing. Jojo (Joseph) and Jacob are amongst some of the caretakers we get to know in this film who have pledged their lives to the wellbeing and survival of these rhinos.

It’s by no means an easy job. Working on the range for 10 months of the year is hard. Jojo makes the point that he often feels like a stranger in his own home upon return. We see the impact that this kind of living has on these men. Jojo is anxious to be near the maternity ward for the birth of his first child and Jacob struggles to pay the fees for his son’s education — he manages to make up enough to ensure his son will remain in school until at least the next time he is home from Ol Pejeta. These men make a lot of sacrifices in order to do the work that they do. However, it’s clear that the connection they have to the rhinos makes the hardship worthwhile.

Early on in the documentary, they are alerted to sightings of an orphaned baby rhino and immediately take in ‘Ringo,’ a young male who struggles with the absence of his mother. Eventually the other rhinos warm to him: this is due to the persistence of Jojo who makes sure that Ringo remembers that he is, in fact, a rhino and needs to learn to act like one. It’s the perseverance of these men that means these animals have any chance of survival.

The conservancy also gets a lot of tourists, eager to catch sightings of the last standing male white rhino. You could say Sudan is somewhat of a celebrity. The caretakers welcome such tourism as it gives them business and it raises awareness of Sudan’s predicament. However, when watching this film it’s hard not to be reminded that age is something one cannot defy. At 45 years old, Sudan has already outlived the average life-span of a rhino. All of the publicity and awareness resulting from tourism can’t freeze his youth. The caretakers are aware of this and it’s in the back of their minds as he continues to get older and develop health issues. One of the goals of their care is to allow enough time for scientists to be able to develop a method that would allow them to clone the species from Sudan’s DNA. It may seem unorthodox, but science may allow us a chance to undo the mess we ourselves have created.

A heart-rending but necessary watch for anyone who feels passionate about wildlife conservation. Kifaru is not afraid to shine the light on the ugly parts of our society: that of an excessive greed for wealth. This is the resulting impact.

Kifaru screened at this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. It does not have an Irish release date yet.

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