For those removed from the issue of conservation, it has a tendency to seem fairly cut and dry: don’t kill animals! However, when you take off the top layer and really analyze the intricate interplays, conservation is a genuinely and uniquely complex problem. Milking The Rhino (written and directed by David E. Simpson) is a documentary that addresses that very complexity. It follows the change of two African pastoral societies on the shaky fringe of globalization in one of the most arid and unforgiving climates in the world.

Narrated by what I am assuming is Morgan Freeman’s long lost twin, Milking The Rhino documents the Massai cattle-herders in Kenya and the Himba cattle-herders in Namibia, two peoples who are worlds apart both geographically and economically. While begrudgingly embracing a global economy, both groups are slowly adopting eco-tourism as their principle income, abandoning their traditional herding by the wayside. The Massai are farther along in the transition, allowing the film to highlight the unique problems along the way at different stages.

Eco-tourism and conservation are Siamese twins; capital comes in the form of Westerners wanting to see wild African animals (e.g. elephants, rhinos, etc.). Therefore, if you want money, you must protect the wildlife. But with the land and resource requirement necessary to herd cattle, the constant threat of predation and the ever-threatening risk of a decimating drought just beyond the horizon, it becomes clear that these two methods cannot coexist peacefully. When push comes to shove, do you take the cattle or the elephant?

There is a shocking, yet explanatory, dialogue in the movie between a cattle-herder and a villager working for the conservatory NGO (non-government organization). After a lion killed a few cattle (and was subsequently culled), the herder explained his desire for all lions to be killed, while the conservationist pleaded that only a few needed to be culled for each to co-habitate. It really illustrates the issue at hand: cattle-herding is all this individual has ever known and it is his only reliable source of providing. Like a Louisiana fisherman faced with the recent, devastating oil spill, his only fear is not being able to manage through a change. It’s the ongoing battle against inertia.

But such is the human condition. Change is ubiquitous, and whether it be moral, ethical, or practical, it is often necessary. Like anywhere else in the world, the documentary successfully illustrates the herders’ analog to liberals vs. conservatives (and their subsequent hindrances to solutions). Over the next few centuries, the climate is going to change dramatically, and that very dialectic is going to be extremely problematic. Adaptation is going to be necessary, and the resistance to change is going to be dangerous dead weight. But it is a perfectly understandable fear. Just like that Gulf shore fisherman looking out over miles and miles of ruined ocean wondering where his family’s next meal is coming from, the Massai herder sees the lions and rhinos introduced to his pastures, wondering how the give and take of the next drought will affect his way of life.

All in all it is a fairly straightforward, narrative-based documentary, augmented with breathtaking scenery (providing probably the best advertisement for eco-tourism around). The structure of the movie and the juxtaposition of the two situations provides a useful compare and contrast arrangement, all the while highlighting the complexity of the situation at every way-point. Several keystone and very personal interviews further elaborate on the drama involved in conservation, while giving the film a unique proximity; it does an excellent job at detailing the urgency of what may feel like a distant problem. It makes a foreign issue approachable, and for that excels as a documentary.

Though the film sought a limited release, it should do extremely well in an academic setting for years to come. It will also be notably attractive to the nature documentary niche, offering more narrative and less spectacle than the likes of Oceans or March of the Penguins. I would say it is a must-see for any nature enthusiast, or anyone with a civic conscience. With an attractive run time of only 85 minutes, it will leave you more aware than before, with only minimal investment.

Have you seen Milking The Rhino? What are your thoughts on conservation?

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