November 25, 2009

REVIEW: Milking the Rhino

Picture the last nature documentary you saw about the African bush: bilbao trees, tall grasses, lush jungle, parched desert, and wildlife ranging from impalas to elephants, zebras to giraffes. If it's anything like the last one I saw, the animals appeared to be living in an untouched paradise.

"The reality is that if you just turn the camera around, you have people that live just next to this wildlife," explains a national park director in Milking the Rhino, a fascinating documentary filmed over three years about the tumultuous relationship between humans and animals in post-colonial Africa. Produced by Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The New Americans) and directed by David E. Simpson, it is a content rich film that should forever change the way you watch a nature documentary or, if you can afford it, participate in an African safari. As one of the year's best and most thought-provoking documentaries, it's hard to even know where to begin talking about all of the issues raised in Milking the Rhino. So while I'll attempt to lay out some of its key points, I really recommend that you take the time to sit down and watch it.

At the turn of the century, the Maasai tribe in rural Kenya has found itself in a perplexing dilemma: national laws (borne of spurious colonial motives) have turned nearly 80% of their pasture land into a preserved wildlife sanctuary. The beasts of the field are thriving while the Maasai, one of the oldest cattle cultures on earth, are on the verge of losing the last of the very land that maintains their livestock and their livelihood. One pioneering tribal member, James Ole Kinyaga, saw ahead of these developments and founded the Il Ngwesi Eco-Lodge in 1995, in an attempt to ensure a steady stream of income as the Maasai continued to be pushed out by the conservationists. 

As Kinyaga explains it, the loss of their land coupled with the restrictions on hunting protected wildlife either spell the end of the Maasai culture or an opportunity to make sure it has a secured space to thrive. He's gambling on the latter, steadily drawing in tourists and always speaking with optimism about his tribe's future; in essence he wants to "milk the wildlife" (and the rare black rhino) for financial gain on behalf of the community. Many of his fellow Maasai are still skeptical of any dealings with the "white man", however, and when a terrible drought drains the little grassy space they have left, his plans and the very nature of wildlife conservation is called into question.

Meanwhile in Namibia, an NGO officer named John Kasaona is trying to spread the gospel of conservation to the Himba and Herrero tribes that live near protected nature conservancies in the country's Kunene region. These tribes have also found themselves struggling with laws that have developed over the past decades, particularly those that allowed white landowners to hunt wildlife while prohibiting tribal members on communal lands from doing the same (it would be considered poaching and land them in prison). Not surprisingly, the Himba and Herrero are suspicious of any kind of talk of conservation, even if it is coming from Kasaona, one of their own native countrymen. Despite their misgivings, however, he continues to work with the government to bring ecotourism groups to their land with the hope that the increased traffic will benefit the local cultures more than it will disrupt them.

As with so many stories about contemporary Africa, the grim, debilitating legacy of colonialism on the continent is on tragic display. Unlike most films, however, Milking the Rhino actually explores these effects, explaining how conservancies developed in the years following independence from colonial powers. It's a real splash of cold water in the face to realize that the institutionalizing of so many national parks figuratively bulldozed over the local people and cultures, creating an even wider socioeconomic gap and leading the tribes to despise the animals that were allowed to stay and roam free on their land.

Milking the Rhino also deftly addresses the cultural competencies that so many Westerners and colonial descendants have been lacking in their interactions with the tribes. (And it goes both ways - the tribes, some never having seen white people, amusingly think they are skinless aliens.) One of the ongoing cultural challenges with these eco-lodges, for example, is that men in the Maasai tribe traditionally do not cook, especially not for white females expecting European and American cuisine during their stays at the Il Ngwesi.

Worse still, when "consultants" are brought in to work with these lodges, their instructions are patronizing (e.g., teaching the Maasai to set a table "correctly" by Western standards, as if that should be defined or even maintained in the bush), and contradictions abound as the groups desire to see the mythical African landscape while turning a blind eye to the effects of their own presence on the land. It's all cringe-worthy and uncomfortable, and it underscores the unfortunate tendency for Westerners to simply impose the comforts of home whereever we go to ostensibly "experience other cultures".

There are no simple solutions to the issues raised in Milking the Rhino; it captures the nuances and historical factors that could be easily left out to make for a prettier picture. We see the suffering of the tribes as the drought arrives, and we see the problems that arise when money begins flowing into the community and changing traditional lifestyles, and we see the unpredictable challenges that threaten to discourage the noble efforts of people like Kasaona and Kinyaga.

But we also see successes in the development of "Communal Conservancies" (which allow the tribes the same rights as private landowners, including hunting as their ancestors did), and in the self-reflection and patience of everyone involved, and in the softening of the tribes' attitudes toward the wildlife. As one Maasai leader admits, "Now when you lose cattle, you're not mad because you are getting something back from wildlife."

It's a small consolation for the troubles his tribe has experienced, but it's an important and mostly uplifting coda to this sad story. Milking the Rhino is not an activist film with an agenda, but simply an educational project that can provide a framework for discussion and eventually lead people to action. If you do get a chance to see it, you will want to visit the film's excellent website for updates and background information on everyone involved. And next time to you see a nature documentary on the African plain, consider the people who have been asked, often forcibly, to move out of the camera's frame.

Milking the Rhino recently screened at the 2009 Flyway Film Festival (listen to Matt Gamble's interview with co-producer Xan Aranda here). It also aired on television this year as part of PBS' Independent Lens series. Visit the official website to see dates of additional screenings, and to purchase the film on DVD. It is listed but not yet available on Netflix.


  1. Great review! You can also find the film on iTunes.

  2. Thanks for reading, Anon, and for the reminder. The film is currently available for purchase on iTunes for $9.99.

  3. this movie is great! its on netflix as well


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