“The Last Animals”: a journey to the frontlines of extinction

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IN VIETNAM, Kate Brooks is posing as a tourist looking to buy wildlife products. On the dealer’s counter there is a poster featuring a cartoon of a baby rhino, part of a campaign to spread awareness about the animals’ looming extinction. Oblivious to the irony, the salesman presents pictures of his rhino-horn bracelets on his phone, placing the device atop the poster.

It is one of many shocking moments in “The Last Animals”, an urgent and beautifully shot film about the world’s largest land mammals and the people fighting to prevent their extinction. During its making, 100,000 elephants and 5,000 rhinos were killed for their tusks and horns, used in ornaments, jewellery and traditional medicines. The problem is not new and this documentary is not the first to highlight it, but Ms Brooks’s five years of work, uncovering the lesser-known sides of the story, has resulted in an impressive and far-reaching film.

Ms Brooks, a photojournalist turned film-maker, previously worked in the Middle East and is no stranger to conflict zones. She makes clear that the frontline in the fight to protect endangered animals is no different to any other. Poachers—funded by criminal networks, enabled by corrupt politicians and often linked to terrorist organisations—are now armed with automatic weapons, night-vision goggles and helicopters. After drugs, weapons and human trafficking, it is the fourth most lucrative transnational crime.

“The Last Animals” is an ode to the “unsung heroes” who every day risk, and frequently lose, their lives protecting animals. Early on, it shows a Congolese community in mourning for a ranger. His colleagues must put their grief aside to continue their training, led by Jacques Lusengo, a colonel in the armed forces, and Patrick Duboscq, a French ex-policeman who laments their shoddy equipment. They are later ambushed while on patrol in Garamba National Park, leading to a shoot-out; the footage of poachers riddled with bullets, one of them dying on camera, is horrific to watch. Later the viewer learns that the rangers’ helicopter was gunned down, killing the colonel and three of his team. It is hard to reconcile these tragic deaths, both animal and human, with the demand for trinkets and ineffectual potions.

Indeed, despite official estimates that elephants and rhinos may become extinct in the next ten to 20 years, Ms Brooks says “the reality is that localised extinction is happening now”. At the start of filming, there were seven northern white rhinos left in the world but this figure quickly decreased to five. In zoos in San Diego and the Czech Republic, and in Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya, the animals are named individuals, making it all the more shocking when they die—Nola, Nabire, then Sudan, the last male, until there are only two. They die of various natural causes while in captivity; interventions to make them breed have failed. According to Ms Brooks, it is a cautionary tale of what happens when humans try too little too late. There is nothing left to do but watch an extinction taking place.

Yet there are some glimmers of hope in “The Last Animals”. Scientists hope to be able to create a northern white rhino using stem-cell and in-vitro fertilisation technology. Gene mapping can trace ivory’s origins, revealing poaching hotspots and the paths of criminal networks. Conservationists and international activists are making progress in changing attitudes and legislation. Further campaigning is needed, Ms Brooks says, given the scale of the problem. She asks her audience to petition to stop the legal trade of ivory and rhino horn (as people cannot differentiate between antique, farmed or poached animal products without impractical and costly tests). The film’s website provides a portal to do so.

It is a dire situation, and worsening. On October 29th China partially reversed a ban to allow sales of rhino products and tiger bones in “special circumstances”. Countries including Australia, Canada and New Zealand are yet to implement comprehensive bans; ivory continues to be sold in 41 states in America. The EU is one of the largest exporters of legal ivory in the world. A recent report from the WWF says that population sizes of wildlife decreased by 60% globally between 1970 and 2014. It lends an extra weight to the closing lines of the film: “if we don’t stop the killing, it will eventually be just us humans as the last animals”.

The Last Animals” is available to view through Amazon, iTunes and other on-demand platforms

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