Northlight Theatre

In one of this play’s more ironic moments a game warden confesses that he illegally used the ivory confiscated from poachers to buy better rifles with which to hunt poachers. It’s one of many contradictions explored in Rick Cleveland’s eye-opening, richly detailed The Rhino’s Policeman, premiering at Northlight Theatre. Based on the playwright’s six-week 1989 stay in Zambia, where he researched elephant and rhino poaching, The Rhino’s Policeman compassionately explores the no-win situation faced by African conservationists. Its cryptic title refers not to the guards of wildlife preserves but to a bird that feeds on the rhino’s parasites and warns it of trouble.

Certainly the revelations demand attention. During the last decade the African elephant population declined annually by 100,000. The black rhinoceros, an endangered species, is now down to 3,500 individuals; slaughtered for their horns to make dagger handles in Yemen and medicines and aphrodisiacs in Asia, the rhinos are now protected mainly by armed guards stationed at the perimeters of “containment areas.”

Following this story is Peter Cahill, a young Rolling Stone reporter whose initial naivete and ignorance seems intended to allow the audience to measure his Candide-like loss of innocence. As he travels to a remote section of Zambia’s Luangwa Valley national park to write about the conservation efforts of Dr. Ian Booth and his “Operation Last Stand,” he thinks he’s found an unspoiled 20th-century Eden. Nature soon confuses all that: among other nuisances, snakes invade his tent and pesky black flies give him a burning rash.

But Peter’s worst disillusionment is with the people he chronicles. Booth (whose research is loosely based on the work of the Adamsons of Born Free fame) turns out to be inept. His anthropomorphic attempts to domesticate lions have backfired, he has lost two wives to bush accidents (a lucky third wife divorced him), and his concept of ideal nature requires a lawn mower.

Worse, Booth can barely control his underpaid and less-than-loyal staff–a racist park guard and his black underlings. (Former hunters, the Zambians’ principal experience with elephants and rhinos is the destruction that rogue individuals wreaked on their villages.) The guards have had to shoot 30 poachers–later we watch them shoot one more.

The play never really develops another relationship between Peter and a young American he meets, Lisa Wilson, a seasoned, no-nonsense elephant researcher who accuses the free-lancer of merely exploiting a hot topic and having no wish to make a difference. (Indeed, Peter’s past hard-luck assignments involved gangs and the homeless.)

By the play’s end Peter’s stake in his story turns painfully personal–and Cleveland’s reportorial script suddenly gains a plot and a climax. Bent on his own photo explorations, Peter hires Gunda Muchisa, a tracker and former poacher Booth has reluctantly hired as a guard. For Gunda old habits die hard, and when the inevitable tragedy results, Peter loses his innocence.

As the play displays the painful choices faced by wildlife preservationists, it evolves into a kind of dramatized debate, making its complex case through well-wrought soliloquies. In one a Zambian describes his astonishment at the sight of gawking tourists in a hot-air balloon that’s terrifying the vast herds below them.

The script stirs up thorny questions: Are game parks essentially tourist-subsidized zoos that will never preserve the diversity of the wild? Is it hypocritical for the North to expect the South to preserve its environment, considering how we’ve ravaged our own? What about the burgeoning African population demanding space and food? Why does the revenue from big-game hunting supply most of the animals’ protection against poachers?

The play boils these down to one ugly question: are the lives of poachers worth more than those of the endangered species? There is no easy answer, and no play can paint a solution. A Zambian guard quietly says, “These things should be left to us to decide.” But you wonder–do we trust them to save their animals? Are they indeed their animals?

Cleveland presents these dilemmas with clarity, economy, and precision, but a crisis this huge can only be thinly dramatized. It’s fascinating to know that to wild animals the clicking of a camera shutter sounds just like the chambering of a rifle shell, but that’s not the stuff out of which to make riveting theater. Too much here resembles the kind of illustrated slide lecture that The Rhino’s Policeman spoofs twice.

B.J. Jones’s action-oriented staging makes the most of the documentarylike script. Kevin Crowley plays the results-oriented Peter with a wide-eyed credulity that contradicts the character’s journalistic experience, and he doesn’t fully register the remorse Peter should feel about the tragedy he triggers. But Crowley serves well as a likable everyman through whom the audience glimpses the crisis.

A crafty comic creation, Greg Vinkler’s Dr. Booth is that deathless stereotype, the addlepated, dithering Englishman. (It’s less hilarious when you remember that this bush bureaucrat may well be these animals’ last chance.) Strong support comes from Johanna McKay as the practical American whose elephant research may make a difference, from Ernest Perry Jr. as the tribal hunter who refuses to believe he’s a poacher, from Michael Nash as the racist guard who loves to terrify Peter with tall tales of the bush, and from Byron Stewart as an African who tears himself apart trying to see both sides.

Michael Philippi’s set, complete with abundant rain showers, captures both the spaciousness of the veld, with its elegant cloud patterns, and the cramped tin-shack quarters of the conservationists. Mary Griswold’s costumes document the cultural differences that this rather short play can’t take the time to examine.