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Raleigh filmmakers race extinction to complete poaching documentary in Kenya

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There are three northern white rhinos in Kenya. Not a specific three—just three. Two more live in the San Diego Zoo, making the known global population five.

As the African poaching epidemic—driven by foreign demands for ivory and abetted by weak regulation—nears its logical conclusion, some venerable species are on course for extinction within a middle-aged person's lifetime. Even if you scoff at the demise of the lily-nosed thatch warbler, you'd probably mourn the lion, the elephant and the rhinoceros. But in a shortsighted era, that reckoning may come too late.

With Trophy Games, an in-progress documentary seeking Kickstarter funding, a team of North Carolina filmmakers captures the crisis at zero hour by embedding with the African wildlife rangers tasked with protecting those last three rhinos, examining how poaching affects local economies and communities.

The team includes two experienced filmmakers, UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Jon Kasbe and Raleigh's David Hambridge. Raleigh's Andrew Brown, producer, created the project while working with nonprofits in East Africa. He wants to raise awareness of wildlife as cultural heritage in Africa and to raise U.S. funds for Kenyan conservation.

As of Dec. 29, the Kickstarter has raised almost $27,000. If its $35,000 goal is met by Jan. 3, Trophy Games is slated for a fall 2015 release. If not, slower grant funding means that by the time it comes out, the rhinos' fate might be a moot point. The INDY called Brown to learn more about the project's particular urgency.

INDY: What led you to explore poaching?

ANDREW BROWN: I was in Kenya, working with internally displaced persons camps. A Massai guide explained to me that the economy was really taking a hit due to poaching. Essentially, he said, without wildlife, nobody but missionaries and NGOs would ever come to Africa. The poaching crisis has scared off a lot of tourism, and jobs throughout the country have been dramatically hit. I ended up going on a safari camping trip with some Maasai guides and filming them with the wildlife. I saw how there were so many different organizations tying the wildlife industry and eco-tourism to new development, and how it was their best shot at developing much of rural Kenya.

Does the film have an animal rights angle?

I really do believe that conservation is not just about protecting the animals. It's about protecting our humanity. The documentary is really a look into the people on the front lines. We are embedded with the Big Life Foundation's ranger unit in rural Kenya, and their whole livelihood is tied to the survival of these animals, so they are willing to risk their lives to protect them. We are going to take the viewer into their daily lives on patrol. We're focusing on one ranger specifically to show how this crisis plays into his role as a father, and how his passion for wildlife conservation is not about him. It's about his country's heritage, and wanting to pass down a country to his children.

Where are you in the process now?

We have already begun expert interviews. We have a number of different stateside consultants that have already been filmed—specifically, Dr. Stuart Pimm, a professor at Duke and a contributor for National Geographic. We will also be interviewing Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who's in charge of the U.S.'s role and stance on this international problem. In Kenya, we'll be shooting in April and May, following the ranger unit.

Are any challenges you've encountered specific to this project?

Outside of the Kickstarter funding, it's the ability to get full access to film. With most organizations over there, it's a dangerous subject. They're happy to be featured, but some don't really want you following and interviewing their rangers. Some people have done reports on rangers and found out that they weren't being paid; there are different political things going on. Getting film permits in an African country while the Kenyan Wildlife Service is under a lot of investigations for corruption and abuse—definitely, navigating that has been difficult. Different experts that we've teamed up with have helped us push on the ground.

What kind of release goals do you have?

We are releasing two versions of the film. In Africa, it will be very focused on the call to action, "this is your heritage." We have a coalition of organizations planning to host community screenings throughout rural Africa so they can really see what's going on. There's a lot of turning the eyes from poaching, especially when it's poachers vs. corrupt government.

Stateside, we will be doing film festivals. We've already had some that have featured Jon and David's work in the past reach out to us. We're also hoping for streaming distribution. The profits, stateside, will be going toward the Big Life Foundation so they can hire and pay more rangers.

What happens if the Kickstarter goal is not met?

Then it's going to prolong the process as we go the traditional grant route. You're talking about another year or two. To be honest, there's no guarantee that there would be anything left to protect. That's one reason why we did the Kickstarter route—it fit the urgency that we had for this film.

Trophy Games: Trailer from David Hambridge on Vimeo.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Fates of horn & ivory."

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