Nicola Davies explains what inspired her to write Last: The Story of a White Rhino published by Tiny Owl earlier this year and why she decided that she had to illustrate the story herself.
Late one night back in 2018 I watched a documentary about a rhino. He had been named Sudan when he was captured as a calf in the wild, but had spent most of his life in Prague Zoo. He had been taken into captivity as part of efforts to prevent his sub species, the northern white rhino from becoming extinct. Shorty afterwards, the war in Uganda resulted in the whole remaining rhino population there being exterminated.
In spite of everyone’s best efforts, the captive rhinos didn’t manage to make more rhinos very successfully. Eventually, the decision was taken to return them to the wild, in the hope that being back ‘home’ would help.
By that stage the poaching of rhinos for their horn, mostly for use in Chinese traditional medicine, was big international criminal business and Sudan had to be protected 24/7 by armed rangers. He was by then the very last male of his kind.
There were many things about this story that moved me. The fact that this iconic species had been all but wiped out and that human ignorance and greed was set to push it over the edge. But as a life long advocate for wildlife none of that was unfamiliar. What had me in tears was Sudan himself, the quiet sad dignity of the animal and the gentle respect and care which he received from his human guards.
As I sat in my kitchen after the film was over thinking about what would it be like to be the very last of your kind, a story came down my arm and wrote itself. Writing from an animal’s perspective is something that I have avoided for all of the many books about wildlife that I have written. This time, writing in the first person was only way I could see to deliver the emotional punch that I wanted my readers to feel.
By midnight I knew I had the text of a picture book called Last. I also knew it was a text I could not let go of. I could not let another person illustrate it. I had to do it myself, even though I had never illustrated a book before.
As a young person I painted obsessively and desperately wanted to create images that conveyed the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Last, with its message, the one that I had spent my whole career delivering in other forms, was my chance to do it.
Luckily, independent publisher Tiny Owl were prepared to take a risk on my artistic ability and so I began the long journey to illustration, up a learning curve so steep, at times I almost fell off.
I drew rhinos again and again. Their strange long heads, their wonderfully expressive ears, their marvellous feet and rather endearing behinds. I spent time watching live white rhinos at a zoo, and learned so much about their characters as animals. They are immense, yet when they move, they do so with a kind of grace. Their calves are particularly endearing, bold and curious with a sweetness and innocence that is irresistible.
I looked at photos and videos. Some of the images were very hard to watch. Rhinos rotting in the tropical sun, with the bloodied stump where their horn had been chain sawed off. Calves starved to death beside dead mothers. Rangers and poachers shot dead, just as much victims as the rhinos, while the real miscreants, the criminals who traffic wildlife products illegally, and the ignorant rich who buy them, go un-punished.
It was important that the human heroine of Last, who is not referred to in the text and whose narrative is solely visual, was a person of colour. In wildlife documentaries as I grew up conservationists were white Europeans, aided by un-named local helpers. Non Africans from international organisations still have a role to play but now many of the biologists, wildlife rangers, and conservationists who look after Africa’s precious wildlife treasures, are black. That’s the other story that I wanted Last to tell.
The was no happy ending for Sudan. He and his female companions were too old for making babies. He died of old age but last hope for his sub species didn’t quite perish with him. He left behind a small but vital legacy, a store of sperm in a freezer. That could be used to make a Southern White rhino female pregnant and be the start of bringing Northern white Rhinos back onto the savannahs of Africa, where they belong.
Note from NNFN Coordinator:
To find out more and about how you can get involved visit www.helpingrhinos.org an international rhino charity. You can also register here for Sundowners on Saturday 21st November – an online fundraiser to support ‘Conservation in Crisis’ – broadcast live from the famous Sweetwaters camp and waterhole on Ol Pejeta.