War photographer and director Kate Brooks, famed for documenting conflict in areas such as Afghanistan and Syria; focuses on another type of war zone in this urgent, compelling documentary that looks at the horrific costs of the continuing ivory trade in Africa.
The Last Animals investigates in detail the gruelling, bloody war against poachers and the powerful ivory traffickers that manage them such as Feisal Muhammed Ali (an awful man who arrogantly denies ever even seeing ivory in court). These traffickers also help to fund local terrorists and civil wars, whilst links in key poaching networks have also been found to the narcotics trade and human trafficking/slavery.
Brooks was brought to this cause as she poetically recalls in the film, from seeing so many die as a war photographer that she “lost her faith in humanity”. Suddenly chancing upon a herd of elephants gave her a sense of peace, and she’s been trying to repay that with this film.
Losing faith in humanity is also probably what you will do while watching many parts of The Last Animals. The sheer consumer greed for ivory in Asia, as well as government corruption that allows ivory to get in, for example, is upsetting to behold. The film opens with secretly filmed shops on the border of China and South East Asia, selling cabinets and drawers heaped full of ivory jewellery and trinkets worth hundreds of dollars.
Much of the trade’s value is based on preposterous myths that ivory can cure cancer or even just “kick a hangover” as Brooks puts it. It’s so bad Vietnam have started an ivory awareness campaign for young people called ‘Little Rhino’.
Visceral images of elephants and rhinos with half their head missing, lying side by side, also bring home the cruel reality of the ivory trade. Whilst like a thriller, the clock ticks down on the survival of the last five remaining northern white rhinos in captivity. With this species, as Jane Kennedy – a zoo keeper at San Diego Safari Park, who lovingly looked after Nola the white rhino until she very sadly died during filming – puts it, “the face of extinction comes right at you”.
The film also documents the human cost of the war against poaching, following park rangers and the paramilitary at Garamba national park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We see them in training, weapons jamming, whilst poachers use army helicopters and sophisticated weapons to kill rangers as well as elephants from the air and ground. They are 200 men surrounded by hostile factions like the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), or the terrorist Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). It’s no wonder that as Prince William says, over 1000 rangers have been killed in 10 years.
One poignant and heart-breaking scene shows the funeral of a ranger shot by poachers, a whole community mourning and walking in solemn procession behind his coffin whilst his son hysterically and repeatedly cries “daddy”.
The pain of the situation is also persistently conveyed through powerful interviews with key players in the conservation movement. One of those figures, Dr. Sam Wasser, Director at the Centre for Conservation Biology, University of Washington, fights to bring the criminals heading poaching networks to justice by tracing the origin of ivory hauls. He sees what he calls massive ‘purchase orders’ of ivory from the same areas on a regular basis. At one point surrounded by yet another big haul of ivory of what he sadly calculates is about 1000 elephants, he picks up a small tusk and despairingly asks, “why would you kill an elephant for a 10th of a kilo tusk?”
The film’s cinematography shows Brooks photographer instinct, capturing an impending thunderstorm at Garamba national park with dramatic dark clouds rolling in and panoramic shots of vast spaces of African landscape dotted with clusters of elephant herds. Through to intimate close-ups of the sad-looking eyes of the ill Nabiré, the last nortnern white rhino in Europe, and a ranger crying into his hat after the death of another ranger at Garamba.
Depressing as it all is, the film does offer some hope in the form of resilient park rangers who would “die for the forest”, ivory traffickers being brought to justice and scientists in Berlin who are currently trying to clone a white rhino from Nabiré’s cells. And with 1 in 5 species facing extinction and 96 elephants dying every day, we need passionate conservationists and campaigners like Dr. Wasser and Dr. Paula Kahumbu, and this film, more than ever.
The Last Animals is out now and showing at Bertha DocHouse.