Educators on the world stage

with no previous filmmaking experience, Jeannie Magill helped spearhead the effort to create Milking the Rhino, a documentary about community-based conservation in Kenya and Namibia, which will be showing at the Portland International Film Festival this week.

Jeannie Magill is obviously passionate about the conservation of African wildlife.

And even with no previous filmmaking experience, she helped spearhead the effort to create Milking the Rhino, a documentary about community-based conservation in Kenya and Namibia, which will be showing at the Portland International Film Festival this week.

Community-based conservation is the idea that in order to successfully protect wildlife, the community needs to be part of the process, and needs to directly benefit from the protection of biodiversity. It’s in opposition to the traditional method of National Parks, which simply close off an area to human interaction.

Since Magill will also be on campus today to discuss the ideas in Milking the Rhino (3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., SMSU 294) the Vanguard sat down with her to discuss the changing ideas of conservation and sustainable development in Africa, and the lessons it can teach the rest of the world.

Ed Johnson: Could you describe your history and how you became involved with this issue?
Jeannie Magill:
I did educational safaris in Kenya, and I was a visiting scholar with the program of African Studies at Northwestern University. With that as a background, I started to get to know this thing, community-based conservation. About six years ago I took a class where the last two weeks were a practicum, a trip to Kenya and Uganda.

On the last day I was back in Nairobi, I went to the National Museum. I bought a book there called At the Hand of Man by Raymond Bonner about the Campfire program in Zimbabwe. And it was good. But I got angry with him because he only talked about that program and I knew there were others out there. Why aren’t you telling me more?

By chance I met a woman who told me, immediately, the first day I met her: “You should make a documentary.” And I thought, “You’re nuts! I don’t watch television. Why would I make a documentary?”

Movies just aren’t who I am or what I’m about. But we agreed to work on something else, with meeting every week for four weeks, and she said it again. And by the third time I said, “Yes! I’m going to a make documentary. It’s going to be about more than the Campfire program and I want Africans to be educators on the world stage. It’s their story to tell, I want them to tell it.”

EJ: Your credit on the film is as “co-producer and originator.” What exactly was your role in the filmmaking process?
It was the research—where are we going to film, where are we not going to film and why. Making the connections with people. For content [Director David Simpson] referred back to me, but he is the filmmaker. He did all the editing. I helped with the funding. It was my concept paper that helped get us the MacArthur grant. But it was the people contact in country that was my main responsibility. And the people I was connecting with were really excited about this idea because films can go place books aren’t.

One of the reasons I wanted to make Milking the Rhino, besides having Africans be educators on the world stage and bring a positive, good story out of Africa that people don’t usually hear, is outreach. I wanted to talk with universities and university students, to let them know that this exists. I want to be working with people at the government level, to show them that this can work.

EJ: And in the film, both locations [Namibia and Kenya] had their own issues they were dealing with, which seemed like a good choice.
Community-based conservation is community led. A community doesn’t have to be a conservancy, they do it by choice. One of the first things they have to do is decide who is and isn’t community members. And these, a semi-nomadic people, they have to decide: “Where is the conservancy? Where are those borders?”

It’s really an issue of consensus; they have to go along that whole border asking, “Do you agree? Do you agree this is where our border is?” That can take up to four years to do. If you see [the film] you see that everybody has a voice and everyone is respectfully listened to. So, if you’re talking about something as sensitive as a border, it’s going to take a lot of conversation.

EJ: Do you think that this type of conservation will advance in Africa?
Yes, because it seems like the communities are responding to it, bringing back ideas that are closer to those of a generation ago.

EJ: Is there ever a worry that tourism, which is part of the idea of community-based conservation, will have a negative effect on the local culture of Africa?
Well, sure. And again, these people have that choice to make; it’s not our choice.

For example, when we started filming Milking the Rhino, the women that we met all dressed traditionally. And they were very adamant that they were going to keep their traditional dress no matter what. By our third filming trip it Namibia, there was one or two women in dresses. So it’s changing.

As long as the choices are theirs, then that’s the way it has to be. The world isn’t going to stand in one place. Because of globalization, it is getting more homogenous. And how do you put a value on that without imposing paternalism?

EJ: How do you think this idea compares to the way we’ve done national park here in U.S.? What are the lessons to be learned from still developing countries about how to deal with wildlife?
Well, I think Milking the Rhino shows and makes the case that fences and fines doesn’t work. Our parks in the United States are having a horrible time, people aren’t going there and they’re underfunded. It’s really not much of a model. I think what we’re doing in the United States is almost an example of what not to do. We lost the buffalo.

I think Africans have something to share and teach the rest of the world, that if the rest of the world is listening and paying attention they can get ideas to apply that to their own situation.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]