"Mourning with rhinos: approaches to engaging people with the rhino poaching crisis through film"


South Africa’s populations of near threatened Southern White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum) and critically endangered Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) have declined so dramatically as a result of poaching, that in 2012 the South African government declared a state of crisis. To date, the crisis shows no signs of abating, with several rhinos being poached across the country every day. Rhinos are being persecuted for their horn, which is a sought-after commodity across much of Asia and the Middle East. While rhino horn has long been associated with traditional Asian medicine, its reinvention as a status symbol and recreational drug means that young people now represent a growing market. Consequently, a project team made up of members of the Exeter Anthrozoology as Symbiotic Ethics (EASE) working group from the University of Exeter, along with an anthropologist and filmmaker from the University of Stockholm, set out to trial a novel approach to engagement filmmaking, based around the recently developed concept in the environmental humanities of ‘storied-mourning’ (van Dooren 2014: 284), an approach by which humans might be encouraged to face and respond to the loss of life characteristic of the global environmental crisis. Through detailed accounts of the lives and deaths of individual rhinos from the people who knew them, storied-mourning “offers us the possibility of mourning as a deliberate act of sustained remembrance” (2014: 285), moving beyond forms of storytelling based on negative imagery to communicate information about the deaths of ‘characters’. Storied-mourning has yet to be used in research aimed at initiating consumer behaviour change, nor has it been systematically integrated with visual imagery. It should be noted that what is not being attempted is the portrayal of a comprehensive view of the many factors which shape this crisis but, rather, a focus upon the key victims of the crisis. As such, the film focuses specifically on what it is like to be a rhino or a rhino carer living (and sometimes dying) during the crisis. In addition to the short film utilising storied mourning as its central concept, two further films were made, each based on more established approaches to engaging audiences in a conservation message. In its next stage the project will assess the responses of university students hailing from countries where rhino horn consumption has been documented in order to measure the efficacy of storied mourning as a means of eliciting feelings of care in people who will never encounter a rhino but may encounter a rhino ‘product’. This presentation will explore the Anthrozoological approach to a conservation problem, the process of translating emergent theoretical perspectives onto film, and plans for the future of the project.

Van Dooren, T. 2014. 'Mourning crows: Grief and extinction in a shared world'. In G. Marvin & S. McHugh (eds.) Handbook of Human-Animal Studies. Routledge.