‘The Last Animals’: Director Kate Brooks Exposes the Sorrow and Malice of Elephant Poaching
Editorial note: Some of the images found in this article are graphic in nature and might be disturbing to some readers.
What would it be like to live in a world without elephants? Documentary film The Last Animals, directed by award-winning photojournalist Kate Brooks, gives us a glimpse into that possible, yet unimaginable future. African safaris would seem less exotic, local ecosystems would suffer, and future generations would grow up not even knowing what these remarkable animals were.
Brooks is famous for filming all sorts of wars, from those in Afghanistan and Pakistan to ones in Gaza and Syria. And now she has immersed herself in a different kind of war — one these majestic creatures unknowingly find themselves in the middle of. African elephants as well as rhinoceros are brutally killed by the thousands each year, wanted only for the price of their tusks and horns. It’s said that if poaching continues at this rate, these iconic mammals will cease to exist by the year 2020.
While The Last Animals may not solve this problem overnight, Brooks hopes her documentary, both visually stunning and jarring in its exploit, raises awareness of this cruel animal trade enough to drive people to do something about it. (If watching an innocent rhino being held down — visibly scared and trembling — as its horn is sawed off isn’t enough to make your blood boil, then I don’t know what is). Some have already taken a stance on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. The states of New York and New Jersey recently passed laws creating stricter bans on the ivory and rhino horn trade in the United States.
Though this serves as an important and necessary step in the right direction, The Last Animals shows that elephant and rhino poaching remains an ever present and growing issue in Africa and the world. In fact, a recent study reported that 100,000 elephants were killed in the last three years alone.
Brooks’ current work on the issue has landed her film photography on the cover of the Smithsonian Magazine, in addition to TIME, Newsweek and The New Yorker for her previous coverage in the Middle East.
Even though Brooks is in the middle of post-production work on The Last Animals, she took the time to speak with GALO about elephants and rhinos and why the world would be a duller place without them, how the ivory trade helps fuel terrorism, and animals’ incredible powers of healing.
GALO: So I understand that your inspiration for this film started when you received a 2012-13 Knight Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. Your study proposal asked the question “Can there be ecological preservation in an overpopulated world with diminishing resources?” What was it that caused you to jump from that question to the world of poaching Africa’s elephants and rhinos? Was it an issue that you were always aware of or has your research helped shed some light on the situation?
Kate Brooks: Well, a few weeks into the fellowship I was called in by the assisting ability department at the university — they had noticed my study proposal online — and they mentioned that they thought the links between terrorism and the ivory trade were starting to be made. And given my background and study proposal, I turned my attention to poaching and began doing research for what has become the film.
I had been in Kenya on safari in 2010, it was just after I was in Afghanistan covering military medical evacuations as a photojournalist, and I went to Kenya on this vacation feeling very troubled by many of the things that I had witnessed — a lot of soldier double and triple amputees. For me, it was being in that environment amongst these animals in beautiful nature that really helped me kind of heal from the trauma that I had witnessed. And that kind of feeling made me think that I would probably do work on wildlife at some point in the future, I just didn’t know when that would be and in what capacity. So when I was a fellow and sort of pointed in the direction of poaching, it seemed to me to be the perfect fit, given that I already felt very connected and passionate about wildlife in Africa.
GALO: You sort of mentioned it, but over the past 20 years you have worked extensively in the Middle East, mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, after the events of 9/11. Professionally you are known as a “war photographer,” and you cite elephant and rhino poaching as a kind of war as well. How has this work compared to your other photojournalism experiences — human on human conflict versus human on animal conflict?
KB: Very often, I suppose in human conflict, there are opposing sides that are very well-defined, and, of course, in issues related to poaching, the primary victims of this conflict cannot express how they’re feeling or defend themselves — and so, they are dependent and relying on human beings to save them and protect them. So I think that is one major way. I believe that this project is not without risk, but a very different risk from the type I’ve taken throughout my career working in conflicts.
GALO: From what I can tell, in your film you are following patrolmen who work to protect elephants and rhinos in conservation areas. Going along with what you were just saying about risk, did you meet a lot of resistance from poachers while filming? If so, what would you say was the most dangerous situation you found yourself in?
KB: I suppose one of the biggest risks has been being in Kenya and possibly being in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as in the West Gate Mall. Last time, I was going in and out of the West Gate Mall when I was in Nairobi. There are, of course, people who don’t necessarily want these issues to be exposed, and so I suppose there is probably a risk in coming across somebody who is opposed to what I might be exposing. And then in the field, there are dangers when you’re on patrol and there is potential for being in a firefight between rangers and poachers.