To Serve and Protect

To Serve and Protect

We’ve been at the reserve for just under two weeks now, and the team seems to have established itself as something as a constant. Though various families and groups of friends have come to visit and left again after a few days, we stay and continue working on our projects and the final documentary. Each day I learn something new about the conservation battle here in South Africa and across the world, even if we don’t get to spot a new species or visit another part of the reserve.

For example, yesterday we went on our first bush walk. It is exactly what it sounds like – a walk about the bush. It is not exactly a spiritual quest, but it did give me a different perspective. From a literal standpoint, we had a ground-eye view, as opposed to one from a big, safe jeep. You could say it was a subtle change of scenery; but going into the bush like this had some important prerequisites.

We had to dress in “safari” neutrals – not even black and white were allowed. We had to walk in a single file line, and talking was absolutely not allowed, except when the rifle-toting rangers in charge were giving our formation instructions or pointing out some flora or fauna that would enhance our tactical knowledge of the terrain, and so enhance our efforts to preserve it. In other words, it was a covert operation. And for good reason too. There are some very dangerous and relatively unpredictable animals in the wild.

But throughout my time here, I find that I have been just as preoccupied with upright, two-legged beasts (Homo sapiens sapiens) as I have been with the four-legged animals we came here to document, be they clawed and fanged, horned or tusked.

Human enigma adds a complication to our mission, one that is both insidious and consistent: we are obliged to promote the conservation of several endangered species through field work at this reserve, yet we are forbidden from disclosing our location to those we would inform. In fact, our debriefing upon arrival emphasized that rangers are not permitted to share with regular civilians how many rhinos and elephants range the grounds. To do otherwise would be akin to rangers broadcasting to a potential pride of lions that a young, fat wildebeest has been tied up in a field – or to use a better-known phrase, leading their lambs to slaughter.

And therein lies the question: can we show society the marrow of the story here, without serving up the meat to a vast and hungry audience? This secrecy is essential, forsomehow we have become undercover agents in an underground war against poaching and the black market trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn. Despite the inherent value of a free-ranging, unharmed elephant or rhino, there is more than enough incentive to participate in this market considering the percentage of rural Africans living below the poverty line and that tusks and horn can run for upto $400/kg and $2500/kga pop – before exportation to Asian markets.

It is not an exaggeration to say that we face a massive shadow network of vendors and other agents, many of whom directly or indirectly finance civil wars with these conflict resources. These agents range from Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army to Sudanese militiamen – the same people we know have carried out countless atrocities in Uganda, Darfur, and beyond. Furthermore, many of these overlords and their middlemen offer “gainful employment” to poor subsistence farmers throughout the region, not just in their own nations. This results in a virtually endless supply of young men willing to shoulder a gun and bag a bull – and the more bangs for those bucks, the more the continent suffers.

The immediacy of the problem has not escaped me, although I know we have more work to do before we find the solution that is right for the case of South Africa. Moreover, before anything else we must consider the safety of the animals where we work, and the humans that have guided us thus far. Fortunately, the team has racked its collective brain and found what I believe to be an answer that will suit both our duty and our cause.

We have found a way to narrate the plight of animal protagonists without breaking their witness protection, and without enticing antagonists who would otherwise be spurred on by the base opportunism of human nature. Keeping in mind that an honest documentary is anything but scripted, and that the story only comes into focus after the film has left the editing room, I am excited to say that we have cast our characters, animal and human alike. We are not left with much more time before we have to move on to the next set, and then to strike it all; however, I believe we will be able to achieve our goal of raising awareness, without raising the hairs of those who would otherwise seek to destroy that which we came to serve and protect.

– Clara Bowe

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