“The Last Horns of Africa” is a film by director/cinematographer Garth de Bruno Austin that chronicles the endangered rhinoceros of South Africa. The film is shot in Kruger National Park, a 2-million acre park the size of Israel or Wales.
Regional Ranger Don English, whose father was a ranger in the park from 1963 on, has worked the area since 1985. Over the years, Don’s job has changed from conservation to guerilla warfare against rhinoceros poachers, who will stop at nothing to kill the rhinos in the park in order to remove their horns and sell them on the black market.
The Chinese belief in the medicinal properties of rhino horn powder, as well as the prestige of having a dagger with a rhino handle has made life difficult for the 450 ranger who try to patrol the large park. The job is virtually impossible since the ratio is one ranger for every 3,000 acres.
Also prominent in the telling of the story is the woman running the Care for Wild Rhinos Sanctuary, a rhino orphanage, Petronel Nieuwoudt. Petronel is plunged into deep grief over the death of Thor, a rescued baby rhino. Thor does not die at the hands of poachers, however, but as the result of frolicking with a herd of white rhinos, who somehow harm his spine.
There are only a few thousand rhinoceros left in Africa and something like 300 to 400 in Kroger Park. The pay-out of up to $8,600 for a rhino horn is irresistible to small teams of natives who have even resorted to murder of breeders, making it necessary to hire security and to keep the exact location of the rhino orphanage within the park a secret.
One breeder, John Hume, of Swaziland wants the government to legalize the trade of rhino horns, the money going towards the car and upkeep of rhinoceros to replenish the herd. His reasoning seems to make sense, as he is trying to save the lives of the animals and the horns, removed humanely, would not be sold on the black market but would allow the community to financially support the animals. And, as he pointed out, it might drive the high price of the rhino horn down if it were legalized. A vote is taken and fails, with only 26 yes votes, 17 abstentions, and 100 voting no.
One interesting analysis of the inability of the principals to agree reminded a lot of the current dilemmas in Congress between the GOP and the Democrats. As the narrator suggests, “They’re reluctant to sit down around the table and find a solution that works for everybody.”
The cinematography of the veldt, with a variety of wild animals pictured in their natural habitat, is visually stunning. Gorgeous landscapes abound. At one point, we see a rhinoceros come down to drink at the river, something Don England said he had never seen in his 44 years in the park.
Rhino numbers have decreased dramatically in Kruger National Park. According to recent rhino statistics, the rhino population in Kruger National Park has decreased by 60% since 2013. There are only 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos left in Kruger National Park. Rangers have recently voiced their frustration to the media about the courts taking too long to prosecute alleged rhino poachers who have been arrested. Many go free on bail only to commit more acts of rhino poaching.
The documentary could have played like a “Dateline” thriller, as the law, working undercover, attempts to shut down the two biggest illegal dealers, “Big Joe” Nyalunga and Mshengu (Petros Meduza). Finally, we see the raid on the property of Big Joe, as he and his colleague are taken down, as the result of an undercover officer, Lt. Colonel LeRoy Bruwer, who, along with the others, is successful in arresting the duo in September of 2018. Although the prosecution argues against bail for the defendants, they are released anyway. March 17 of 2020 the lead investigator is assassinated while on his way to work in Mbombela in Mpumalonga Province. He was 49 years old.
The film is long, but beautifully photographed and helped draw attention to a very real problem. According to the latest statistics, the problem is becoming somewhat better, no doubt because of efforts like those detailed in the documentary.