A nonsensical demand for rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products, primarily in Asia, is fueling a poaching war in Africa. Sides of a Horn writer and director Toby Wosskow explains more about the stories that that inspired the film...
The illegal wildlife trade generates billions of dollars annually and is the fourth most lucrative illegal trade in the world. International crime syndicates are preying on desperate people from rural African communities by offering them a fraction of the overseas profits to poach from their own wildlife. Meanwhile, brave anti-poaching rangers, who are often from the same communities, and sometimes even the same families as the poachers, are putting their lives on the line to protect these animals.
This is the case in our short film, Sides of a Horn, which tells the story of Africa’s poaching war from both sides of the fence.
The poacher in our story, Sello, is living in extreme poverty and does not have the means to provide for his sick wife or hungry child. When a poaching gang offers him enough money to get his wife the healthcare she needs, the risk of being caught or killed seems worth it to him.
His brother-in-law, Dumi, is a passionate anti-poaching ranger living in the same community. He puts his life on the line every day to protect the rhino from extinction. It’s no longer a conservation challenge for him; it's guerrilla warfare.
One fateful morning, a sacred, prehistoric rhino saunters through the magnificent wildlands where he is met by these two men – one bent on taking his life and the other bent on saving it.
In July 2016, I stumbled across this story first-hand. I was visiting a game reserve in South Africa and found myself standing less than one hundred feet from a white rhino. What struck me more than the animal’s beauty was that this moment could have been taking place 50 million years ago or today. I was looking at a living, breathing dinosaur in a land that time forgot.
The magic of that moment quickly faded when an anti-poaching ranger explained that this magnificent creature was being massacred to the brink of extinction. My travel adventure evolved into a research trip as I began speaking to the people living near these parks. I learned how complex the poaching crisis is, and how the decimation of the rhino is directly linked to the people’s poverty, lack of opportunity and insufficient healthcare.
Though I discovered a fair amount of international media coverage on the multi-billion-dollar illegal wildlife trade, very little of it talked about the people at the heart of the issue. It was then that I decided to make this film – a drama, based on actual events, and told from the perspective of the men and women on the ground. My goal was to expose the social impact of the illegal wildlife trade and spark a conversation about this global issue.
With these ambitious plans, I travelled back to South Africa and continued to interview people in the communities. These interviews guided me through the writing process, inspiring every story, character, and line of dialogue in the script. No matter what direction the plot went in, I was committed to staying absolutely true to the realities of the South African people.
When it came time to start production, the relationships my team and I had built with local community leaders allowed us to film in a township in Ledig that has been directly impacted by the crisis, and in Pilanesberg, a game reserve that combats poaching on a daily basis. With the full support of the Bakubung Royal Family who govern the local region, we casted local non-actors and included the community in every part of the filmmaking process.
The primary language spoken in the film is Zulu, which I do not speak nor understand. I was completely dependent on our translator, who grew up in the townships, to tell me if the actors strayed from their lines. Once that trust had been built between us, I was able to be fully present with the actors and focus on how their performances were making me feel, as opposed to getting hung up on the words they were saying. Trust continued to be a theme through the entire filmmaking process as we collaborated with the people of South Africa to tell their story with them, rather than about them.
Just days before we began production in March 2018, Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino died, rendering the subspecies extinct. The very day we began filming, a rhino was poached in the park we were in, halting our production. On the day we wrapped production, five Anti-Poaching Rangers were tragically killed in Virunga National Park.
The story you see in this film is unfolding every day as the war between poachers and rangers escalates across the African continent. In just a decade, roughly 8,000 South African rhinos have been poached out of a total population of 20,000 – a rate that is clearly unsustainable. I sincerely hope that we will not be responsible for the extinction of the rhino, one of our last remaining dinosaurs. Earth does not belong to us; we belong to earth. This is a problem caused by humans and we must act now to fix it