Reflections on the documentary STROOP – Journey into the rhino horn war

STROOP – A journey into the rhino horn war. This is a powerful documentary highlighting the complexities of the current rhino poaching crisis. I believe that STROOP will help make a real impact for rhinos, and other species. The Worldwide Experience team attended the public screening in Port Elizabeth, where our South African office is located. The audience primarily included conservationists from all over our Eastern Cape Province, gathered in mutual support of the documentary. The Eastern Cape saw a spike in rhino poaching incidents last year (2018), despite every effort to protect these iconic animals. It hurts even more when it happens to animals you know, who you’ve spent time watching, helped organise their dehorning procedures in some cases. It pierces your core.

Before attending the screening of STROOP, I was nervous and anxious, for as a conservationist I know what is happening out there – a rhino horn war – but I also knew that I was about to be reminded of the severity of the crisis, and have to sit through the discomfort of footage which would evoke emotions which I usually suppress in an effort to stay focussed on our conservation work.

My expectations in this matter were exceeded. I was shocked, I was angry, I felt utter despair, I cried, I sobbed, I laughed, I felt overwhelmed by the true severity of the crisis; I also felt awe for the work that our South African conservation community has achieved, I felt the deepest respect for those brave women (Susan Scott and Bonné de Bod) behind STROOP and for the rangers on the frontline, but afterwards, what I felt the most was the urge to do something more. I chatted with Bonné, and we bounced some ideas around which I am eager to implement.

What more can I encourage others to do, those who perhaps feel they can’t make a difference because they’re not professional conservationists? What more can I do to help protect our rhino, their habitat, and by implication other species too? Firstly, we need to try understand the complexities of the rhino crisis. Let me delve into my top ten points after watching STROOP…

We are losing the rhino war
This is the toughest realisation to acknowledge. I have been fooling myself, perhaps in an effort to maintain positivity, that we were slowly gaining the upper hand. At the end of the day, we are still losing more rhinos than are being born. Plus, keep in mind that the number of unborn rhino foetuses that have been lost are not taken into account in the death toll. Also not included in the statistics are the orphaned rhinos which die alone without the nourishment, warmth, love and protection from their mothers who have been murdered. Only a small percentage of rhino orphans have been rescued, and even then, not all make it, with some dying from weakness, injuries, and commonly depression.

The demand for rhino horn is so much greater than I realised
To see footage of souvenirs and artefacts made from rhino horn (and other illegal wildlife species’ parts) was nothing short of shocking. To know that our rhino are being butchered brutally for bangles, tea cups, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and carvings makes me feel ill. The number of these products for sale in Southeast Asia is astonishing; it seems that the demand is only increasing. It’s depressing to see animals reduced in value to mere human commodities and trinkets.

The level of cruelty involved in poaching has worsened
When rhinos are poached, they are most often not killed before their horns are hacked off brutally with an axe and panga (machete).

Demand reduction campaigns are looooong-term
I knew this approach was long-term, but it’s going to take so much longer than the time we have left to save our rhino. This is tied to my second point, that the demand is greater than we realised. It’s entrenched in centuries of cultural beliefs and traditions, and is ever increasing with the rise of a middle class in Southeast Asian countries. Demand reduction must certainly continue (one of the most impactful demand reduction campaigns is Vietnam by my Hero, a Wilderness Foundation initiative), but we cannot not fool ourselves that the demand will be drastically reduced ‘overnight’. What Bonné says makes sense, “Don’t look East. The solution lies with us [South Africa].” We must do what we can to support ground operations and rhino advocacy.

Other species are going the same way, and what we achieve with rhinos can help them all.
In one scene of STROOP, an interviewee and user of rhino horn is looking for the horn to show to Bonné, and she’s going through the pouches saying the one is bear bile, the other pangolin, and tiger bone, etc. I hope that what we can achieve for rhinos in the long term, will also help other wildlife species being illegally traded.

Full Moons are Poachers’ Moons
What most people associate with the full moon is romanticism and beauty. Conservationists, and in particular the rangers, hate the full moon. Out in the bush where there is no light pollution, the difference from dark moon to full moon is incredible. You can walk around the bush quite easily during the nights around full moon, and as one of the interviewees in the film explains, you would even head into the shade of trees for cover when necessary (shade created by the moonlight). Because of this, there is a higher occurrence of poaching incidents around full moon. Anti-poaching units (APU’s) need extra resources during full moon phase, which can be difficult to implement when the APU’s are already thinly stretched.

We need to support our rangers and trackers more
Time and time again it has been too easy for rangers to become involved in poaching out of financial desperation and community pressure to put more bread in the basket. The skills of rangers and trackers are specialised, and it takes years of experience to develop such skills. I am a qualified tracker and a specialist in track and sign interpretation so I know what’s in it. Plus, these days, rangers and trackers need to add military combat skills to their portfolio. We need more advocacy for rangers and trackers. If you think about it this way… they are putting their lives on the line, literally, every day. If we think of other professions that are regarded as dangerous where employees actually earn higher pay, ‘danger pay’ (like commercial divers on oil rigs), it makes sense that rangers and trackers should fall into the same category; they should basically be earning danger pay. This is just one of the ways where, to the communities, the rhinos will be worth more alive, rather than dead.

We must manage our emotions during the war against poaching
It’s tough emotionally, especially when I’ve been on the ground, part of rhino dehorning operations where in a sense you feel like you’re betraying the animal, taking away its ‘rhinoness’ and putting it through a highly stressful experience in the process, but knowing it could possibly save its life one day (moonlit night more likely). I’ve got colleagues who have been on the ground with freshly poached rhino carcasses, one with blood still running out of the bullet wounds, face open, gaping, bleeding, body still warm. I have helped track a rhino who managed to run away while it’s two herd members were butchered, experienced the relief at finding her grazing albeit very skittish (understandably emotionally traumatised) only to find a few weeks later that she had a bullet entry wound in her face. (Luckily she’s fine today – we relocated her to a safer location and she’s been treated by the wildlife veterinary team). In order to do our work, we end up disconnecting from our emotions in order to carry out the task at hand. But STROOP, it hit me hard. I’ve got to be honest here, I’ve been feeling downright depressed since watching the film yesterday, feeling angry and hopeless and a sense of despair. Karen Trendler, renowned rhino calf response and rehab expert, mentions in the film that as conservationists we have to manage our emotions so that we can continue with our work. So, I decided that for the weekend I would let the emotions in, cry some more, mourn the loss of all the fallen rhino so many people work so hard to protect, mourn the loss of the connection between people and animals, between people and nature, between people and themselves, then pick myself up, focus on the positives and work on a strategy to do more as part of the solution. We cannot give up; we need to channel the energy from our emotions for achieving good.

We need to support the conservationists on the ground.
If we’re going to start winning this war against rhino poaching, the people on the ground need all the support, encouragement and recognition we can give. Trackers, rangers, nature guides, anti-poaching units and their canine rangers, security staff, wildlife vet teams, advocates in the fight against poachers, the police and investigators, crime intelligence specialists… the list goes on, so complex is the rhino poaching crisis.

One person CAN make a difference. YOU can make a difference.
The most powerful thing that anyone can do to help is spread awareness. Make a decision to be a rhino ambassador in your personal capacity and commit to spreading awareness – through social media, articles in your local papers, through your school/college, your work, your friends and family, events, private STROOP screenings, through volunteering at conservation projects… get imaginative! Here is a website, Action for Rhinos with some great practical actions that you can take right now, from template cover pictures for your social media accounts and leaflets to print and hand out to increase awareness, to a template letter to your MP (Member of Parliament). Another way is fundraising toward a cause that directly supports rhino protection initiatives on the ground. We recommend the following charity campaigns for their ethics, transparency and level of impact:

And very important: Watch and spread the news about STROOP – A journey into the rhino horn war. DVD’s and digital downloads are available from 12 February 2019.

My hope is that this blog inspires you to take action, to keep taking action. We cannot fool ourselves, the war against rhino poaching is far from over. For us, there is no choice, but to save our rhinos. We cannot give up.

Please feel free to contact our team, should you require further information or would like to work with us on a campaign.

by Taryn Ingram-Gillson, Conservationist & Director at Worldwide Experience