CNN reporter Kim Norgaard writes from South Africa on Nov. 15th that the illegal rhino horn trade has triggered an extinction threat to these animals in this large country. Norgaard reports that 340 of the Black species and the White species of rhinos have been killed in South Africa in 2011, exterminated for their horns, which are valued in Asia for their supposed aphrodisiac powers.
Norgaard reports that S. African game reserve administrators are hard pressed to stop the slaughter. Their numbers are small and the country is far too large and the organized poachers are well armed and rewarded by the high prices the rhino horns fetch on the black market. Money drives them to commit these crimes and poachers have already wiped out the Western Black rhino species, which recently has been declared to be officially extinct througout the world.
This relentless slaughter connects to the near elimination of the North American bison herds by the mid-1870's. Buffalo (bison) herds as large as 50 million existed in the 1850's, but after the successful completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 their numbers were dramatically reduced. There were less than 3,000 buffalo by 1875 when the hunting stopped, primarily because there was no money to be made in the destruction of the last of them.
Richard Brook's The Last Hunt (1956) starring Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger is based on the novel by Milton Lott of the same name. Charlie (Taylor) and Sandy (Granger) are brought to together by chance to try and hunt down the remaining buffalo. Charlie, a brutal, dangerous gunman, does it strictly for the killing, though the money plays a role. Sandy needs a new stake, but is sickened to his core by the years he has spent hunting the bison.
Both men are Civil War veterans unable or unwilling to escape the stench of death. Charlie is convinced that killing makes him a better man and that the war proved it and now killing buffalo does the same. And since each dead bison means more dead Indians, wiping out the herds means exterminating the Indian tribes which Charlie notes has been sanctioned with medals by the American government. Charlie kills animals with the same demeanor he has when he kills off a whole Indian family for running some of the hunting group's mules.
Sandy can barely pull the trigger anymore. The Last Hunt uses documentary footage of an actual buffalo thinning operation by US Park Rangers in the 1950's. We see numerous animals killed on screen. This footage is folded into the dramatic narrative reinforcing the brutality of such herd hunting. Sandy desperately attempts to maintain his sanity by changing his behavior. Charlie sinks deeper into paranoia and homicidal lunacy that has him hearing buffalo herds thundering in his ears and leads him to killing a valued co-worker. He then stalks Charlie during a vicious snowstorm which leaves him dead, huddled inside a fresh buffalo hide that has entombed him in solid ice.
The film's end is as bleak as the news from South Africa. There is a trail of bleaching bones and the surviving hunter is as broken as the littered landscape. He knows that the end of the buffalo is an end of a way of life and the horrible loss of a valuable portion of the ecosystem. And it seems that money will succeed in wiping out other animal species for similar reasons. The only difference is the 140 year time period between the bison and the rhino's elimination.