Poaching and habitat loss has pushed northern white rhinos to the brink—but seeing them up close is still possible through virtual reality technology.
Coming face to face with a northern white rhinoceros is like being in the presence of a dinosaur.
Virtual reality documentary The Ark allows viewers to get up close to the almost-extinct animal in an immersive project that enhances how documentary film is typically experienced. Think more museum than multiplex.
At the Tribeca Film Festival, filmmaking team Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill are installing a replica of a rhinoceros crate—a facsimile, because an actual rhino crate is so heavy, it would crash through the floor. The viewer is escorted inside the dark, straw-filled container, puts on VR goggles, and spends the next seven minutes in San Diego and Kenya, eye-to-eye with the most endangered animal on the planet.
There were seven northern white rhinoceros when the project began, and now, just two years later, there are only three left in the world. The filmmakers’ hope is that The Ark will not only symbolize but literally give a face to mass extinction.
The genesis of the project was two years ago when Jongsma was looking at an old issue of The Economist and was introduced to the concept of a frozen zoo—a lab containing the genetic material from every animal species.
Intrigued, the filmmakers visited one in San Diego, where they discovered that the San Diego Zoo and The Scripps Institute were working on a sci-fi, Jurassic Park-style method to use genetic material from the northern white rhinoceros to try and save the species.
At this point, scientists have successfully cloned the rhino stem cells and are working on turning them into rhino eggs and sperm. From there, it could be possible to create a baby rhino through in vitro fertilization.
The world’s three remaining northern white rhinos are under armed guard on a 700-acre preserve in Kenya to protect them from poachers. The male and two females cannot reproduce because of age and poor health.
In 1960, as many as 2,000 northern white rhinos roamed across a broad swath of sub-Saharan Africa—but that number had dwindled to just 15 animals by 1984.
Demand for rhino horn in traditional Asian medicines fueled poaching, which, along with habitat loss, has effectively driven these rhinos into extinction.
With little opportunity for most people to ever see one in person, The Ark “is a form of conservation in the digital realm,” Jongsma said.
If you can’t make it to Tribeca, an app version of The Ark is in the works, as are further distribution plans.
O’Neill acknowledged that it’s ironic they chose a medium not everyone can view yet; however, it’s getting easier and easier to watch VR at home. All you need is a smartphone and a cardboard headset.
The Ark will premiere April 14.