Fighting the Rhino War

A documentary by Baylor alumna Susan Scott shows how poachers are decimating Africa's rhinoceros herds

Fighting the Rhino War

Baylor Arts & Sciences alumna Susan Scott (BA ’95) has created a powerful new weapon in the fight against the random slaughter of the world’s endangered rhinoceros population — a film.

Fighting the Rhino War - Susan Scott
Susan Scott

When Scott first arrived at Baylor on a golf scholarship in the early 1990s, her career goal was to join the professional golf tour. Her backup plan was to use a degree in ecology — which meant being on a premed track — to work with wildlife in her home country of South Africa.

That strategy didn’t last long.

“So obviously my first year, I did spectacularly badly,” Scott said, laughing. “I think I got a GPA of 1.7. It was a big wake-up call.”

Fighting the Rhino War - Bonne De Bod alongside a Suffering Rhino

Her best friend and golf teammate, Kristin Riddle, was a telecommunications major, and “was talking all the time of film and TV,” Scott said, “and I was like, ‘Oh — I can do that and go into wildlife filmmaking.’”

Scott changed her major before the beginning of her sophomore year at Baylor, and that set her on a path to a career as a documentary filmmaker, which was the reason for her visit back to campus this past October. She and her fellow filmmaker, Bonne’ de Bod, were in Waco for a screening of their independent documentary “STROOP — Journey into the Rhino Horn War.”

Four-year struggle pays off

Fighting the Rhino War - Bottle Feeding a Baby Rhino

The film exposes the ugly and dangerous world of rhino poaching, when the large animals are killed just for their horns, which can sell for up to $300,000. The horns are made up of keratin, the same protein found in hair and fingernails, and one of the largest markets for their sale is Vietnam, de Bod said, where the horn is shaved or ground into a powder and used for medicinal purposes. Rhino horns are also carved into jewelry and given as — very expensive — gifts.

Scott and de Bod spent four years shooting and editing the 134-minute film, which made its premiere at the San Francisco Green Film Festival in 2018. From there, it was featured in 29 more film festivals and won 24 awards, including best documentary honors at festivals in San Pedro, San Diego and Berlin.

The recognition “made the South African media sit up and take notice and give publicity and awareness to the film,” Scott said. When STROOP had its premiere on M-Net –– South Africa’s version of HBO –– many people in the country said, “We have to watch this film because it did so well in America,” she added.

Fighting the Rhino War - Burning Horns

“South Africans, we’re very parochial,” Scott said. “We don’t believe in ourselves. Something has to happen internationally before we think something’s good.”

Golf days at Baylor

Scott was faced with the same kind of parochial thinking in her golf career. Many times as a young golfer, she said, people told her, “Oh, you’re good.”

“But when I got a scholarship to Baylor, they said, ‘Oh, you must be very good.’”

After graduating from West Ridge High School in Roodepoort, South Africa, Scott accepted a golf scholarship to Baylor. She made the dean’s list and the Southwest Conference Academic Honor Roll and was team captain as a senior, the year that Sylvia Ferdon took over as women’s golf coach.

“Susan was very much an athlete and an outdoor person, and she loved film,” said Ferdon, who retired in 2011. “She was always creating videos with our golf team, and she said she wanted to film documentaries after graduating from Baylor.”

Fighting the Rhino War - Susan Scott in the Field

Falling in love with film

Also during her senior year at Baylor, Scott took on two internships — one at Jackalope Productions in Waco, and another at KCTF, which at the time was the Public Broadcasting System television station in Waco. (It changed its call letters to KWBU-TV in 2000, and went off the air in 2010.)

After she graduated with her degree in telecommunications and a minor in religion, Scott moved to Washington and worked as an intern under Tony Black, A.C.E., at Video Systems Interface. At the end of the internship, Black hired Scott to be a junior editor. For the next six years, Scott worked with Black editing films and documentaries that appeared on such broadcast and cable outlets as Animal Planet, Discovery, National Geographic, NBC and PBS. She then moved back to South Africa and started SDB Films, where for nearly 20 years she’s been making documentaries that can be seen on nature-focused television stations around the world.

“I fell in love with documentary filmmaking here at Baylor,” Scott said.

Mentors made a difference

Telecommunications — now film and digital media — faculty at Baylor have had a direct impact on her career and life, Scott said.

“Dr. Michael Korpi essentially got me my internship in Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Scott earned the internship with Tony Black by participating in a research study on editing, said Korpi, professor of film and digital media.

“We sent every student’s edits of these scenes to a professional editor for evaluation, with just a code number for each student, no names,” Korpi said. “After completing the evaluation of all these student attempts, the editor sent me Susan’s code number and said, ‘If possible, I’d sure like to know who this is. They understand editing.’ It is the clearest indication I’ve ever had about the excellence of any student’s work.”

Scott also said that the work of FDM professor Dr. Corey Carbonara in the early days of high definition television and film, and the knowledge he gained while working at Sony that he shares with students, gave Scott an advantage when she started her own company.

“I remember going back home to South Africa and all the wildlife filmmakers were getting into HD,” she said, “and I already had experience in HD. What I learned at Baylor set me apart from everybody else.”