STROOP - journey into the rhino horn war … Members Susan Scott and Bonné de Bod on a mission to make a difference in the South African rhino poaching crisis.
By Jason Peters via SDBFilms
27 January 2019
Two film-makers stop their lives to make a film about the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa. Carving out six months for the project, the women quickly find themselves immersed in a world far larger and more dangerous than they had imagined, only emerging from their odyssey four years later.
Two first-time film-makers explore the war for rhino horn. Initially setting out on a six-month project, the duo leave their jobs, sell their homes, even move in with their mothers while they quickly find themselves immersed in a world far larger and more dangerous than they had imagined, only emerging from their odyssey four years later.
In this roller-coaster ride between Africa and Asia, the women embed themselves on the front- lines of a species genocide where they are given exclusive access to the enforcement aspect of the fight. From rangers, pilots and K9 units patrolling the hardest hit national parks to elite police units raiding wildlife trafficking dens in major cities... they find themselves in some hair-raising situations.
They also take an uncomfortable look at the role that apartheid played in marginalizing indigenous people who have been excluded from their wildlife heritage but live side-by-side with ranger families while poaching syndicates operate in their villages. These bush frontier areas are also home to packed courtrooms where the surrounding community come out to support their local “Robin Hood”. Unprecedented access is given over the years to the state prosecutors working in these dingy courtrooms who must fight well-oiled and wealthy defense teams in a flawed justice system.
Survivors of rhino poaching, also challenge the system and come in two versions. Both are hard to spend time with, but this is done through the eyes of the saviours: the vets who choose not to euthanize but use groundbreaking techniques to give patients a second chance. Then there are those who have been orphaned after watching their mothers die at the hands of humans. And yet, they must accept the help of humans to live. One such human suffers a brutal attack when poachers return to the orphanage to kill the survivors.
At the demand site in Asia, the women venture deep undercover, filming in repressed, totalitarian regimes where every day means staying ahead of communist party monitors as well as enduring dangerous encounters with illegal wildlife dealers. On their return, they work with a Vietnamese researcher bravely trying to expose rhino horn sales inside African markets. Like the filmmakers in her hometown, she now takes great risks in their city to show that illegal trade is everywhere.
Desire for rhino horn is made all the more complex by the journey the filmmakers take to the countryside where ownership... of land and rhinos, is viewed as a right. Desperate to trade legally the farmers sue the government but on the other side of all of this is an activist’s journey to fight legal trade. She also takes it to the courtrooms and then on to the streets with protest marches. Internationally a red line of trade has been set-up by nations tussling with each other and the filmmakers wade right into this no-go area, spending time with the elite power-brokers who can change, for better or worse, the plight of the planet’s last living rhinos.
Award wins to date:
- San Francisco Green Film Festival - The Green Tenacity Award
Santa Cruz Film Festival - Spirit of Action Feature Film Award
San Pedro International Film Festival - Best Documentary Award
Glendale International Film Festival - Best Female Filmmaker Award
LA Femme International Film Festival - Special Focus Documentary Award
San Diego International Film Festival - Best Documentary Award
Mystic Film Festival - Best International Documentary Award
Wildlife Film Festival Rotterdam - Newcomer Award
- Berlin Courage Film Festival - Best Documentary Award and The Courage Award for Most Courageous Film
Susan and Bonné have been mindfull of different events around the world focussing on rhinos:
September is World Rhino Month while World Rhino Day is on September 22nd.
The Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference (#endwildlifecrime) was held in London on the 11th and 12th October 2018
CoP CITES 18 will be held in Sri Lanka in May 2019. It is here that the world will vote to allow legal international trade in rhino horn. STROOP focuses on the battle between both sides to sway voters at the next CoP.
South Africa has had a decline in rhino poaching numbers over the past two years and in January next year, the stats for 2018 will be released and it is expected that they will be lower. This may be due to fewer rhinos though as the Kruger census results are also delayed.
China recently lifted their 1993 ban on TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), stating that rhino horn would be used as medicine in state hospitals. This TCM usage features heavily in STROOP, and after a week of public outcry the Chinese government announced they would postpone the lifting of the ban.
STROOP focuses on the usage of libation cups in Asia and the history behind the antique cups for sale at many prestigious auction houses around the world. Bonhams auction house in Hong Kong have now halted sales of rhino horn libation cups after public outrage.
In making this film about the rhino poaching crisis, I initially thought it would be all about the rhinos, but it’s actually become about the people around the animal. Those whose lives have been irrevocably changed because of conditions brought about... not ecological management or natural events... but wholly due to anthropogenic activities. So while the animal, the rhino, is the basis for the story, the structure of the film is interwoven between us - the filmmakers as well as the key characters who help us understand the gravity of the situation and how rhino poaching is impacting human lives. Gaining access to characters was almost impossible at the beginning of the shoot, as many feared that the criminal syndicates would watch the film. So the challenge was to film the story without giving anything away in terms of security. We have managed to do this through gaining trust over time with the characters, and not cluttering the narrative with the “how” but rather telling “how it impacts”. The characters not only gave us access to national parks, courtrooms, farms, orphanages and undercover traders in Asia, they also let their walls down to show their own personal journey in the war.
I do think the fact that we were women helped immensely! We were trusted easily and many times in filming in sensitive locations with nervous characters, it was just myself behind camera and then Bonné with the character/s. Bonné is well known as a credible wildlife presenter/ journalist in South Africa, so the two of us were able to get the intimate moments we needed to tell this never before seen story.
I took a decision early on not to have drones, big cameras, elaborate equipment... as I wanted a tight, close and rough handheld feel to our journey with these characters and it somehow works. We’ve managed to achieve it. By working with small, unobtrusive cameras, we have been able to capture incredible scenes filled with raw emotion.
I was an editor for nearly two decades, so I know that any film is made in the cutting room. While we are cutting the film, we are focusing on two initial things: subtitling and pacing of emotion. Subtitling is key as there are six languages in the film and some of the major emotional moments are driven in a non-English language. So rather than subtitling at the end, we are subtitling in edit to allow the pacing of reading to inform the narrative which impacts the shot flow. Vectors are vital in this process. This time spent in edit, creates comfortable vector flow not only within the frame, which is hugely influenced by where the eyes are in reading a shot... which means of course, there has to be a flow between frames. So this inter and intra-frame balance is vital in delivering all the information given in a comfortable way. In very difficult, tough to witness moments, we, the audience will view the scene through the eyes of the character through stylized moving art that has been created by our art director. I felt it was vital, as it allows us in to these awful moments without turning away from the brutality of it.
Coming from a broadcast background, it was important that Bonné and I make this film without commercial influence. STROOP has been self-funded, crowd-funded and grants sourced, due to the highly politicized trade issue. We have been offered funding for the film from organizations on either side of the issue and we have refused funding from those organizations as we cannot have the film influenced in any way. It’s taken four long years, but I know we have the soul, the essence of the rhino story here.
Q&A with Bonné de Bod
South African's and others know you as an award-winning television presenter Bonné, but what is your story!?
We all wish to leave the space we occupy in a better place and although it’s trite perhaps to say we can make a difference... I guess for me it was the ability to take my passion and love for the natural world and share this with people on-screen. Television and film has a huge impact on the world and we can use that to make people all over the world understand and appreciate the beauty of nature. Without looking into the eyes of a rhino or an elephant through the stories we tell and the pictures we show, a lot of people will not know what we are talking about and just would not care. And I don’t know why there has been a split recently between conservation and nature... it’s simple, without conservation, nature fails.
So yes, from a young age, I had a passion to bring nature’s wonders into living rooms, and hopefully change people’s perspective of the natural world. Nature is not separate from us, it is us. The dignity of a rhino is everywhere, in all things. All that society needs is a little reminder. As far as a pivotal event regarding rhinos, I mean we are all aware of the rhino poaching crisis and especially me as a wildlife television presenter on SABC for the past decade on the national broadcaster’s flagship environment program, 50/50. It was actually during one of these stories I did on the rhino poaching crisis, four years ago, when I realized that I needed to do something more.
We were filming a story in the Kruger National Park and we were taken to a double carcass. When we got the crime scene, the producer of the story told me to sit in between these two carcasses and deliver my lines to camera, a link, something that will link the viewers at home to the scene around me. At that moment I was confronted with so many emotions and questions... How can humanity be so unbelievably cruel? And how can we allow this? It was right there and then when I knew that I had to do something to slow the slaughter and the eradication of this beautiful, iconic animal. And that’s where the idea for a documentary feature film on the rhino poaching crisis was born. An independent film with no censorship or broadcast sensitivities, a publicly owned film where we can show all the aspects surrounding this very complex situation.
I believe the film has taken four years to make?
STROOP was initially a six month project, but I think when myself and the director of the film, Susan Scott, started filming we had no idea just how many layers the rhino situation really has. So, four years later, quitting our jobs with broadcasters, selling our homes, cashing in our investments and moving in with our mothers... well, it has certainly become that cliché... a passion project!
STROOP is an in-depth look at the world of rhino poaching and everything in between. From the battlegrounds in the Kruger National Park and Hluluwe iMfolozi in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the two hardest hit areas in South Africa, where we have been given unprecedented access to the rangers, forensic teams and crime scenes, to the dingy court rooms where we follow the work of three state prosecutors working against well-paid defence teams and a justice system that is slow at the best of times. We follow the police on busts and spend time with private rhino owners. We follow the journey of little orphans who have lost their mothers to poaching and the rehabilitators who try everything to get them back into the wild. We look at the controversial topic of legal trade in rhino horn and then we take the viewer straight to the dark underground backrooms of Vietnamese and Chinese smugglers and of course directly to the rhino horn users.
STROOP looks at the heart of the crisis and gives answers to the questions we all have. We are making this film so that no one can say they didn’t know. And I guess that’s why it took so long... we had to make sure we had covered it all. Susan always said, it doesn’t have to be in the film, but we have to know about it and understand the complexities... and then it can die on the cutting room floor. She is an editor after all, so she wants to have all the story intricacies at her fingertips before refining... but I did put my foot down when she wanted to film another aspect during our colour grade!
What has been the hardest thing?
I’ve had many ups and downs investigating this ‘world of greed’. The most difficult part is witnessing what we, as humans, are capable of. But I’m optimistic at heart. If I wasn’t I couldn’t continue. But having said that, it does get to one, I cannot hide that. I’ve attended the scenes of many murdered rhino, I’ve seen rhinos still alive with half hacked off faces...what unbelievable pain. It shocks you to your core to see that, to witness that, to hear that terrible sound of suffering. The cruelty is totally beyond anything I can think up. Pure evil and human greed. And I do sometimes wonder when, if ever, we will defeat it. But then I remember why I’m doing this, why I’m making this film. This is a creature of God. Such a beautiful creature... the second largest animal on land. We, as humans, have a moral responsibility to protect them, to protect all living species, it is simply the right thing to do. You step away from yourself, from the ego and selfishness that’s within us all...it’s not about us, it’s about them. And as soon as you do this, it becomes easier to deal with all the heartbreaking scenes we capture on camera.
Seeing a little orphan calf crying while standing next to his mother’s dead carcass, is probably the worst scene I’ve had to witness in this poaching war. My faith plays a big role in my life...it’s my rock, it’s what keeps me moving forward. And so many people won’t or don’t talk about their faith and I respect that but for me, I believe we are fighting spirits of darkness here. The poachers are using dark evil magic to go about their business. They have muti they put on their body so they think they go unnoticed by the anti-poaching units and rangers... they believe the rhinos can see them cutting off the horns so they cut their eyes out, they cut off tails and pieces of legs to make more muti. These poachers are calling on spirits of darkness to do their work, they kill, maim, break all sorts of laws, bribe, and let’s not forget they are quite prepared to kill humans as well as rhinos. The international criminal syndicates who the poachers report to are usually also involved in other massive criminal activities like human trafficking and arms smuggling. So these people are truly breaking our society for greed.
Your most memorable experience working with rhinos?
Without a doubt the dangerous undercover filming work we did in Asia. We knew that we couldn’t make a film about the rhino poaching crisis without capturing the demand for the very thing they are being slaughtered for... the horn, on camera. And I have to say that the massive demand for rhino horn really took me by surprise. Sure, we’ve all heard the Vietnamese and Chinese consume and acquire rhino horn but to actually see how it is used... and the mythical, powerful properties they give it... wow, quite something to see and film. The desire for rhino horn is huge and I met people who quite honestly told me that if they had the wealth to get it, they would. So all levels of wealth in South East Asia want rhino horn. Now of course filming in a communist country like Vietnam brings with it it’s own challenges as the communist party controls all forms of media. Vietnam is ranked 175th out of 180 countries with regards to freedom of information and is one of the biggest prisons for journalists and citizen bloggers in the world. So in order for us to capture the “illegal” side of things, well, we basically had to become illegal ourselves. Without giving too much away as I want you to watch STROOP when it’s released!... I think the fact that we came into the country as female tourists meant that we really did slip in undetected with all our filming gear. We saw and filmed rhino horn in all shapes and sizes. From off-cuts used in traditional medicine to jewelry worn as status symbols, to sitting in the home of a rhino horn user showing me how it’s done. I realized that in order to stop the demand in Asia, we have to stop the flow from the source site. It’s that simple. The demand will stop when there is no more source material and I just don’t want that to be when rhinos in the wild are extinct.
The biggest reward?
I have met amazing people on my journey and I’ve spent days on end with the people at the front- lines. There are people who deeply care and have given up their life of safety and comfort to save our rhinos. I’ve been working closely with three female state prosecutors who spend their days putting criminals behind bars. I would look over my shoulder every single day if I was them, but they don’t... they are fearless and I am in such awe of that determination. Rangers and their dogs tracking poachers days on end, not knowing if they will survive the day and see their family again. Vets who are suffering from severe stress because of the trauma they see on a daily basis and from being in armed conflict zones, but when the alarm goes off first thing in the morning to help these animals, they don’t hesitate to get there. These are the true heroes in this crisis, and showing their work to the world in a film is my biggest reward.
You say complex, talk through some of these complexities.
Well, I always say that some call the rhino poaching a crisis, some call it a war, and others even... a campaign. I call it a genocide. The word is defined as the ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part’. and this applies to the mass slaughter of our rhinos. And if we do call it a genocide, we the people, will take it more seriously.
I have seen just how complex the rhino issue is. It is a multi-layered problem starting with an ancient mind-set of millions of people hundreds of kilometres across the ocean, who believe that rhino horn can cure disease and uplift status. On the ground in South Africa it begins with poverty as many poachers come from poor communities surrounding our national parks. As Kruger National Park is home to the most rhinos in the world, obviously it has the most number of poachers targeting rhinos, with an estimated 15 gangs of poachers in the park every day. As it borders Mozambique we do get Mozambican citizens crossing our border and into our parks, which brings unique but difficult diplomatic issues between countries. Our rangers are arresting and shooting back at poachers who enter into our park, and for Mozambicans this is not even over human beings but animals.
So it’s a contentious issue and I think we aren’t even aware of the cross-border talks going on in the background. Scam artists ‘fundraising’ for rhino protection who are putting the money into their own pockets. Private rhino owners have also told me that bureaucratic sluggishness has crept to an all-time high which affects them when they want to dehorn their rhinos for safety measures.... as well as the practice of selling their dehorning permit information to poachers looking for an easy target. Corruption has infiltrated throughout the system. Rhino poaching like other wildlife crime is deeply-rooted yet an ever-changing crime that takes advantage of the set, secretive structures put in place.
Wildlife crime as a whole has transformed into one of the world’s largest transnational organized criminal activities, alongside trafficking in drugs, arms, and human beings. Criminal groups are using the same routes and techniques for wildlife trafficking as for smuggling other illicit commodities, exploiting gaps in national law enforcement and criminal justice systems.
These are serious crimes, driven by demand, facilitated by corruption, and linked to organized crime and militias in many countries, as well as terrorist networks. In Asia I met with representatives from the US government who are fully aware of illegal wildlife trafficking and the terror groups it funds. You may have heard the saying, “there is no silver bullet” and it’s true. There is no one solution that will save the species from extinction. A multi-pronged, multi- disciplined and a multi-agency approach is needed from government’s side, including transnational collaboration and cooperation. And then as for the individual...when people are serious about something and they come together, movements happen. The greatest victories in history didn’t happen because of governments but because of the people. The people made it happen.
We are all on social media, it’s free and really does get noticed by the decision makers. In fact, we’ve had magistrates and judges refuse filming in their courtrooms, but when we mail them our request, we include our crowdfunding and social media comments from people all over the world who want to see this film, and we get permission to film. How powerful is that?!
The public’s support of rhinos carries weight where you’d least expect it. On Facebook share, like and comment on posts that are important to you and of interest to you. Twitter is also a great place to directly target policy makers. And if you’re not on social media, use old fashioned mail, seriously! Someone, anonymously of course, told me that the Chinese embassy in Pretoria was embarrassed by all the mails they received with finger and toe-nail clippings, so they sponsored the rhino security at the nearest zoo. So write those letters, attend marches, any marches in your area with posters of rhinos, talk about the issue so it gets noticed! If you feel strongly about saving our rhinos, let your voice be heard. Ultimately this will I think, make the difference.
We certainly hope that it does.
Bonné de Bod - Talent: Self and Producer
Bonné is well known as an award winning wildlife television presenter. She has been on South Africa’s popular wildlife and environment programme 50|50 for seven seasons and is also a special correspondent for SABC's Newsroom. In addition, her series 'Rhino Blog' is on DSTV's People's Weather where it is currently ranked the most popular show.
Bonné also co-produced STROOP, a documentary feature film on the rhino poaching crisis. Winner of an ATKV Mediaveertjie, Bonné has also been awarded the prestigious Kudu Award for Best Journalist, which she won in recognition of her passionate, balanced reporting on wildlife conservation issues as well as keeping the public updated and informed about environmental issues in South Africa.
Her in-depth knowledge on the rhino poaching crisis from four years filming on the ground and doing undercover work in Asia has led to Bonné facilitating discussions on illegal wildlife trafficking for the United Nations Environmental Programme as well as talks on radio,
at film festivals and wildlife symposiums.
Susan Scott - Director, Producer, Cinematographer and Editor
Susan Scott is a film-maker in Johannesburg, South Africa where she produces stories on wildlife
issues for various broadcasters around the world. Prior to her directing work, she was a film editor for 17-years cutting for some of the best wildlife filmmakers on the planet.
Susan studied in the United States graduating from Baylor University with a degree in
Telecommunications. She won an editing apprenticeship in Washington DC with Tony Black
A.C.E. where she went on to edit with him for several years before heading back home to South
Awarded the prestigious acronym from the editors guild of South Africa, Susan has gone on to
win several awards for her work, among them 3 SAFTAs, a Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival
award as well as winning at the SAB Environmentalist of the Year for her writing and photography.
She directed her first documentary feature film, STROOP - journey into the rhino horn war.
Runtime: 133 minutes
Languages: English as well as Afrikaans, Chinese, Shangaan, Vietnamese and Zulu with English subtitles.
Director: Susan Scott, SDBFilms. email@example.com +27 82 400 5525
Social media: facebook.com/stroopdiefilm, instagram.com/stroop_film & twitter.com/STROOP_film
Wildlife-film.com review: STROOP is a powerful film, expertly and beautifully put together. Bonné and Susan have created an holistic film that is so engaging and emotive, undoubtably because of their personal investment in the film, meaning it will undoubtably resonate with all who watch it, wherever they watch it. Out of respect for these courageous film-makers and their subjects, we think that everyone should watch the film and if they do it will surely help put an end to the poaching of rhino for their horns.
Pre-order from the link below, share, and let's get STROOP ranked at iTunes: geo.itunes.apple.com/gb/movie/stroop-journey-into-the-rhino-horn-war/id1449507961
Expected release date: 12th February 2019
StopRhinoPoaching.com have partnered with STROOP to help the rangers seen in the film: www.givengain.com/cc/strooprangers ALL funds go directly to Kruger, K9 and iMfolozi rangers for their anti-poaching needs.
Coming soon: vimeo.com/ondemand/stroop
See the full feature here!