'Kifaru': Film Review

SUDAN-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Slamdance FIlm Festival
Effectively confronts the challenges of the ongoing wildlife conservation crisis.

David Hambridge’s feature about one of the last northern white rhinoceros won both the grand jury and audience documentary awards at the recent Slamdance Film Festival.

Native to the grasslands and savannahs of eastern and southern Africa, rhinoceros are under assault from almost every conceivable direction. Poachers coveting the horns of these gentle giants, trophy hunters out for a big game kill, extractive resource initiatives and local communities seeking to grow and prosper all pose increasing threats. While rhinos’ precarious survival has been well-publicized, the possibility that smaller populations of the species could actually be wiped out has not perhaps been widely known. Until a solitary male rhino named Sudan became the international symbol of looming extinction.

Kifaru, David Hambridge’s account of efforts to protect the only surviving northern white rhinos in the wild, arrives at a critical stage in the preservation of the species. Confronting the possibility of extinction through the eyes of a dedicated team assigned as Sudan’s caretakers adds another layer of urgency, transforming the film from competent conservation documentary into compelling real-life drama.

Relocated from a conflict area in his namesake country as a juvenile, Sudan ended up in a Czech zoo for years, before he was transferred to the Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy in central Kenya, along with his captive-raised daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. Besides sheltering a variety of other dislocated species, the refuge’s goal is to protect Sudan from poachers and care for him long enough for wildlife scientists to develop a method to clone his DNA, a completely unprecedented task. Surrounded by armed rangers guarding the reserve’s perimeter, new recruits JoJo and Jacob join the privileged ranks of Sudan’s caretakers under the watchful guidance of veteran keeper James.

Although the risks to Sudan’s survival are significant (even though his horns have been trimmed to discourage poachers), there’s one threat he can’t be protected from: old age. At 40, he’s already outlived the average rhino lifespan and is beginning to develop a variety of infirmities. Even so, he responds energetically when the caretakers rouse him from his pen every morning with a bucket of fresh carrots as they lead the three resident rhinos out into a fenced section of the refuge to forage for the vegetation that makes up most of their diet. With the arrival of a juvenile male dubbed Ringo, JoJo finds his calling, befriending the young rhino and genially managing his introduction to Sudan, who gradually warms up to the youngster. Ringo faces his own health challenges, however, reinforcing the reality that the loss of any individual rhino impacts the viability of the entire species.

Sudan’s survival clearly represents a critical opportunity in rhino conservation, and his solitary state makes him a global celebrity, darkly dubbed the “ambassador of extinction” by the media. Busloads of tourists arrive at Ol Pejeta eager to catch a glimpse of him, as the refuge and a dedicated group of scientists attempt to convert his unexpected celebrity into ongoing support for the rhino conservation program. Enthusiastic public response doesn’t change the calculus of his predicament, however, leaving Sudan facing the ultimate existential crisis.

Hambridge includes the caretakers in nearly every scene featuring the rhinos, known as “kifaru” in Swahili, emphasizing their now-inevitable interdependence. It’s also a reminder of humanity’s long history of coevolution with wildlife, each shaping the other’s experiences for millennia. For these keepers, their survival is similarly dependent on Sudan for jobs to support their families and improve their own lives.

Scenes featuring JoJo visiting his pregnant wife while on leave from the reserve and later celebrating the birth of their daughter, or Jacob struggling to afford the education of his kids, introduce a powerfully relatable emotional arc to the film. These caretakers work on the uncertain forefront of contemporary conservation, an evolving practice that attempts to incorporate local concerns and prosperity along with wildlife protection.

The explosion of interest in Sudan’s survival, popularized by the international press and social media outreach campaigns, seems to suggest that the global will exists to conserve critically endangered species. Finding a way to bring wildlife back from the brink of extinction may prove the ultimate scientific and public relations challenge, but for the northern white rhinoceros, Sudan’s fate will always play a key role.

Production companies: VS Goliath Visual, Ragtag Tribe Films
Director: David Hambridge
Producers: David Hambridge, Andrew Harrison Brown
Executive producers: Dr. Morne De La Rey, Earl Johnson, Margie Johnson
Director of photography: David Hambridge
Editor: Andrew Harrison Brown
Music: Kevin Matley
Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Documentary Feature Film Competition)

81 minutes