WASHINGTON, D.C. - Ofir Drori was trying to talk about corruption that is enabling wildlife trafficking in Africa. But he kept getting interrupted by incoming messages from commrades fighting that corruption half way around the world.
Ofir is one of the instructors at the International Conservation Chiefs Academy. He is sitting on a bench in a quiet corner of the courtyard in front of National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, D.C. trying to explain the workings of EAGLE NETWORK, a nonprofit organization he founded to counter corruption in the illegal wildlife trade to a writer. But he keeps pulling out a cell phone in a weathered leather case and responding, in French, to incoming calls from Cameroon, where it is now midnight.
His organization reports they have arrested two traffickers with body parts of pangolins, and a baby mandrill, a type of monkey. They are now dealing with corrupt enforcement officials trying to free the traffickers, and the problem of what to do with the little mandrill overnight. They decide he’ll be fine if they keep him for a night in their office.
This has been a productive day for EAGLE. Earlier in the day they were involved in the arrest of seven ivory traffickers in Uganda. “A military officer tried to release them, so we arrested him as well,” Drori said.
Drori grew up in Israel, but discovered Africa at age 18 as an adventurer, traveling the content alone on foot, horseback, dugout canoe, even by camel.
“I fell in love with Africa,” he said. “I was given so much by Africa. I wanted to give back, both for people and nature.”
He began writing and doing photography about Africa, first focusing on social justice issues. Initially, first he sold stories to publications in Israel and in flight magazines. He spent some time in Nigeria, writing about the plight of women in portions of the country affected by Shiria law. When he began to feel that he was wearing out his welcome in Nigeria, he crossed the border into Cameroon, where he planned to write a story about great apes. He had read a story by Jane Goodall that large apes might be gone in 15 years. This was in 2003.
“I volunteered in a sanctuary and it was easy to see, with the gorillas and chimpanzees, how similar they are to people,” he said. But it also became apparent that the meat and body parts of large apes were being sold openly, despite laws prohibiting it. “I was going to markets and seeing the skulls and hands of apes being sold and the police officers who were supposed to protect these animals, they were going around selling them. They were the ones giving instructions on who was going to get what.”
This was not an isolated case. “I would see that people charged with protecting these animals were at the top of the trade.”
His frustration came to a head when vendors offered to sell him a baby chimp. It was not uncommon for baby chimps to be sold. When poachers kill the adults, the young cling to the bodies of their mothers, which makes them easy to capture. Young chimps are slow developing and typically ride on the backs of their mothers until they are a year-and-a-half old.
Drori felt that if he bought the baby chimp for the modest price they were asking, he was only furthering the illegal wildlife trade. But he wanted to do something. He approached law enforcement and told them about the proposed chimp sale, which under Cameroon law was punishable for up to three years in jail. “I said,’let’s go and arrest them and rescue the baby chimp. They said ‘give us money’. I said, “no, this is your work.”
They were confused about his concern for the chimp. “They said ‘what’s wrong with you? If you want a chimpanzee, we’ll sell you one’.”
Drori went back to his hotel, but couldn’t sleep. He took out a piece of paper and began writing criteria for how a non-profit organization should deal with corruption in wildlife trafficking. Among the goals was that it should put one wildlife trafficker in jail per week. He didn’t know it at the time, but was writing the founding principles for LAGA, the Last Great Apes Organization, but that was a few years away.
The next morning he went back to the chimp traffickers and, lying blatantly, said he was part of a huge NGO that prosecuted wildlife violations. He showed them the law on chimp sales, but said he could get them off if they provided information and released the chimp.
They agreed. “I opened my arms and this baby chimp crawled up and gave me a hug.”
He had been adopted by chimp, whom he named “Future”. Future later went to live in a sanctuary with other chimps.
Drori founded LAGA (http://www.laga-enforcement.org), with like-minded individuals in 2003. Although they had no formal enforcement credentials, they found they could get results by fighting officials who were taking bribes or ignoring the sale of protected animals by confronting corruption head on.
By 2006, they reached their goal of jailing one trafficker each week. Another goal was to have the media report on these arrests. That has happened also, and awareness of LAGA has led to this model being adopted in nine additional countries, a network called EAGLE (http://www.eagle-enforcement.org ).
Collectively, EAGLE has been responsible for jailing over 2,000 wildlife traffickers. According to EAGLE, corruptive influences were encountered in 85% of arrests involving major traffickers, and corruption was encountered in 80 percent of the time during the legal process involving these cases. Those going to jail include military officers, wildlife officers and police.
Drori was in Washington to address a group of wildlife officials from 17 African countries and state and federal enforcement staff from 31 states who are training jointly for a week.
On Tuesday night the officials attended a banquet hosted by National Geographic, where, among other activities, an award was given to the delegation from Tanzania in honor of Wayne Lotter, co-founder of PAMS Foundation Tanzania, and a leader in the prevention of wildlife trafficking. Lotter, 51, was murdered August 16 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, after the cab he was riding in was stopped by another vehicle.
Driori, who was a collegue of Lotter, said death threats are common for officials and activists fighting wildlife trafficking, but it doesn’t deter them.
“We now have a community of activists in 10 countries. They all get threats,” he said, but you can’t kill an idea.”
The ICCA training is jointly coordinated by the National Association of Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). The purpose of the ICCA is strengthen international law enforcement relationships and collaboration in combatting illegal wildife trafficking globally.
For more information see the ICCA webpage: https://www.fws.gov/le//icca/index.html. Follow the events of the International Conservation Chiefs Academy on the National Conservation Law Enforcement Leadership Academy Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NCLELA/