Green Fire Times

Milking the Rhino


A Revolution in Grassroots Wildlife Conservation is Turning Poachers into Protectors

Jeannie Magill


The award-winning documentary Milking the Rhino turns the camera around from the place it usually sits when filming the African bush, to the people living there coping with the challenges and beauty of the local wildlife and topography. The last African documentary you probably saw was filled with tall grasses, bilbao trees and lush jungles teaming with exotic wildlife. But in post-colonial Africa, the reality is that people live in close proximity to this wildlife. Most African wildlife parks are based on our Yellowstone. In all cases in Africa, however, people have been forcibly removed to create the park.


Milking the Rhino examines the environmental work of two of the world’s oldest cattle cultures, the

Il Ngwesi Maasai of north central Kenya and the Himba people in the remote northwest corner of Namibia, overlooking Angola. Decades ago, these proud people were removed from their ancient homelands, where they coexisted in harmony with wildlife for millennia on land without borders. Conservationists, using the “fences-and-fines” approach to preserving wildlife, disrupted traditional lifestyles, making the wildlife park the property of the White Man and turning everyday food-gathering into a criminal act of poaching for these people.


Milking the Rhino explores wildlife and land conservation from the perspective of these two indigenous peoples. These ethnic groups are finding themselves sometimes clashing with the myth of “wild Africa,” which brings millions of tourists to the continent every year, and also works to preserve the myth for economic benefit. Wildlife competes for grazing land with the community’s domestic cattle.


A neighbor of the Il Ngwesi, Ian Craig, has turned his grandparents’ cattle ranch into a wildlife preserve open to tourists. He convinced the Il Ngwesi to practice a new conservation paradigm, Community-Based Conservation, or Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), by turning 80 percent of their land over to wildlife. They use managed, rotational grazing for their cattle, which rejuvenates their land, attracts wildlife to return and provides better grazing for their cattle, especially in times of drought. The Il Ngwesi built a beautiful eco-lodge overlooking a waterhole that attracts elephants, gazelle, zebras, giraffes and various primates. Slowly, the lodge brings in tourists to view the wildlife and share the lifestyle of these engaging Maasai. As one Il Ngwesi chief said, “We’re milking the wildlife. We’re milking the rhino.” The financial gain the community is attaining from tourism, along with the increased health of their cattle because of their new grazing techniques, is empowering these once-colonized people, keeping their culture and language alive and providing a hopeful, positive future for their children. Youth are choosing to stay in the rural setting now rather than migrate to towns looking for nonexistent employment.


Concurrently in Namibia, Milking the Rhino shows a non-governmental organization officer, John Kasaona, trying to spread the gospel of conservation to the Himba and Herrero people that live in a self-consecrated conservation conservancy in the Kunene region of the Marienfluss Valley. For the most part, these are uneducated people who cannot read or write. Kasaona’s NGO has helped them write a constitution for the conservancy that is required by the federal government. The NGO has also helped these communities establish conservation goals and practices. When a local, upscale safari operator asked if they could build a lodge overlooking the Kunene River with a view of Angola, the NGO helped negotiate a contract giving the community members 8 percent per bed night per tourist for use of their land. The safari company works with the Himba and Herrero people, teaching them how to operate the lodge. In 10 years’ time, if the indigenous people want to take over the lodge completely, they can benefit from the proceeds 100 percent. If they don’t want to do this, the safari company will continue to run the lodge and work with the community. Like the Maasai, these people’s cattle are thriving using rotational, managed grazing, which in turn is encouraging wildlife to return to the area and attract tourists. Unlike Kenya, the Namibian government works on wildlife quotas with the local people so they can hunt for their own use or sell wildlife to other conservancies.


Milking the Rhino is a balanced film that shows the true effects of drought on the land, the cattle and the lives of these people. There are no simple solutions to the issues raised. The documentary captures the nuances and historical factors that other films about wildlife in Africa often miss. Traditional lifestyles are being changed by contact with Westerners and the income they bring. African audiences unanimously tell me, “You’ve gotten it right. Milking the Rhino is honest.” That means more to me than the global awards and the nine-year contract with ITVS/PBS television we’ve been given.


Namibia looks very much like New Mexico. Like New Mexican ranchers, the Il Ngwesi Maasai and the Himba are working with drought and cattle. In Namibia, John Kasaona tells his people, “Cows are not the problem; poor management is.” People are part of the solution to rejuvenating the land through good, ecological management plans. Land degradation due to uncontrolled, continuous grazing in New Mexico, Colorado, Il Ngwesi or the Marienfluss Valley in Namibia, has the same effect in each location. The Il Ngwesi and Himba people are realizing that if plants are bitten too frequently, especially in dry times, they can use up their root reserves and die. This is true in New Mexico as well. Helen Giochohi, president of the African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya, also refers to good stewardship in Milking the Rhino. This is a very specific, local response to the land and all that is living on it. Community is important to stewardship. Without the community element, the Il Ngwesi and Himba would not be able to move forward into the 21st century with a working model of Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM).


The method of combining family’s’ herds into one big herd has reduced the human/wildlife conflict for Africans. In Africa, having herders managing and rotating the cattle provides jobs. Could this be replicated in the southwestern United States? In both locations, fencing that can hinder wildlife movement and migration is unnecessary. The rural communities in both Africa and the western US can provide an economic advantage, social benefits and biodiversity by using rotational, managed grazing and Holistic Management principles that include a whole system approach of financial, land and biological planning. This helps increase the health of the soil and impedes erosion while improving livestock and biodiversity.


In Courtney White’s wonderful book, Revolution on the Range, he states, “Communities of people are no different than grasslands in the need for diversity, resiliency, opportunities and self-reliance if it is to survive the unexpected challenges of the present and future.” The Africans in Milking the Rhino are asking how can wildlife pay. Our ranchers are also wondering how their pastures and rangelands can pay. Using rotational, managed grazing is working in Africa. It’s also working for some ranchers in New Mexico, as White so beautifully describes in his book. I conceived Milking the Rhino as an educational tool to bring the concept of CBNRM to people all over the globe, incorporating Africans as educators on the world stage. In Revolution on the Range, White states that outreach efforts will bring this new, exciting, sustainable paradigm of ranching, managed grazing and CBNRM into the minds of average people, politicians, entrepreneurs and non-governmental organizations. He continues, “This awareness is necessary for the work to progress, be effective, and be altered and modified as it evolves.” I agree.


Each community has social dynamics and land that makes reaching their needs and goals unique. Global climate change needs to be addressed by people with social and governmental structures that can use these goals and practices in efforts to combat global warming on a local scale. We need to understand local ecology, what modifies it, and monitor and evaluate what we are doing to see if we are increasing the carrying capacity of our pastures and rangelands while improving livestock and all living things dependent upon our land.



Milking the Rhino’s co-producer Jeannie Magill owned and operated a company specializing in educational safaris to Kenya. She was a visiting scholar with Northwestern University’s Program of African Studies and has chaired panel discussions for the African Trade Association Congress. For more information, email or visit