Taking down the wildlife traffickers – Activism, innovation and courage in conservation
Listening to activist Ofir Drori speak, it is impossible not to be energised by the strength of his passion and determination when discussing his work. Back in 2002 he founded West and Central Africa’s first anti-corruption and wildlife law enforcement NGO, and within seven months his dedicated team of volunteer activists had achieved the region’s first ever wildlife-related conviction.
Since then, the organisation has overseen the conviction of over 2,000 significant traffickers who represent the killings of tens of thousands of protected animals.
The beginnings of LAGA (The Last Great Ape Organisation)
Born in Israel, Ofir had spent some time travelling in Africa before finally arriving in Cameroon. Having fallen in love with the continent, he wanted to make a real impact and fighting the illegal wildlife trade became his passion. His early improvised investigations led him to a baby chimp who was being illegally offered for sale, but he was unable to find NGOs or authorities who were able or willing to enforce the wildlife laws of the country.
As a 26-year-old with strong convictions, Ofir undertook his first impromptu confiscation of the baby chimp, which he significantly named Future. Although his focus was across all wildlife, it was another traumatised young chimp, Kita, that was to play a key role in his life and in LAGA’s early milestones. That first ever conviction and jail term was for the ‘illegal detention of a protected animal’ by the man who had tried to sell her.
Hear Ofir’s life-changing experiences with Kita in his TEDx talk.
In those very first days Ofir jotted down a blueprint for the kind of NGO he had wanted to find in Cameroon – a plan for a new kind of organisation ‘staffed by volunteers, activists and fighters’.
In his book The Last Great Ape (2012), Ofir outlines that the NGO would:
“run investigations with undercover agents who would locate players in the trade of endangered species. An operations unit would take [wildlife] officers and policemen by the hands and carry out arrests with them while fighting corruption during the arrests. In the courts, legal experts would track cases through to prosecution to minimize opportunities for lawyers and judges to take bribes, Finally, a media unit would publicize results […] and broadcast that the web of corruption could be beaten”
And in conversation with Ofir, it is evident that neither the blueprint nor his conviction has changed. While the model set out in those early days in Cameroon has been replicated in 7 countries under the EAGLE Network (Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement), the fight has only grown, not changed.
How did you get into Conservation?
“I came to conservation as an outsider, so in that sense I never looked at it as my ‘career’ or ‘job'”, Ofir says, and it’s clear he sees this very much as a positive.
In reaction to what he witnessed in Cameroon, Ofir had looked for an NGO that would be able to respond to the problem of corruption within the illegal wildlife trade as he saw it, but he was shocked by the perspective and views of ‘conservation’ there on the ground. It seemed to him totally detached from the reality.
“It was sort of like the Emperor’s New Clothes kind of thing”, he laughs. He recounts how they used big words such as ‘capacity building’ and focused on different methods such as workshops and facilitation, but these had become so normalised that they had lost sight of how ridiculous they seemed when faced with the actual situation.
Ofir, however, was determined to act. He had never studied conservation, so felt he had not inherited its old ideas and failings, and was able to adopt a more critical view. By analysing the problem afresh, he came up with a totally different approach to fighting corruption and getting wildlife laws upheld. The project would also measure results (not just problems) in terms of numbers of traffickers behind bars.
It was not long before he succeeded in having an impact; something that for a long time large NGOs and mainstream conservation had failed to do.
What does a typical week look like in your role as Founding Director?
Ofir explains that the team works in wildlife enforcement, which means that they are not advising or giving information to the authorities, but overseeing the entire process and supervising the authorities at each stage. The work they do still follows the blueprint jotted down in 2002, with an emphasis on fighting corruption at each level – the biggest obstacle to criminal prosecution. Using media is also key to maximising the impact and value of the enforcement actions.
Every day they are working on big investigations, taking considerable time to plan every single detail of the operation – with contingency plans included. Investigations across the seven countries may need to tackle issues of corruption, or conflict with government officials, or have to change direction if their operation has reached an impasse.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
“Everything is a challenge – challenge is our work!”
As he does throughout the interview, Ofir reminds me that the work they do is not a job, it is a mission. “Nobody in their sane mind would want this as a job,” he says, noting that if somebody is also thinking about this as a well-paid, comfortable career, this is not for them. But for those who instead see conservation as a mission in life, or for those who think about what they want to achieve in life not in terms of monetary compensation, benefits or retirement, then it is one of the most rewarding things you can do.
“You put all your energy into this fight, and when you win, you really get something very rewarding.”
And what is the most rewarding thing?
Ofir says that it comes from doing things differently from mainstream conservation – that is measuring your results in a very tangible way.
“In that sense we are very privileged, because when we get a major trafficker behind bars, we can touch it, we know we’ve had an impact. We can measure what the outcome is for that specific trafficker”.
As an example, he states that if they aid in the conviction of a particular trafficker who ‘generates the killing’ of 1,000s of pangolins (generally referred to as the world’s most trafficked animal), they know the real and immediate impact of taking them out. This, he says, is extremely, extremely rewarding.
Are there any particular highlights?
Ofir relates how the EAGLE network has taken down three different wildlife trafficking syndicates, each with an Asian kingpin at the head, and each of them responsible for generating the killing of more than 30,000 elephants. It is easy to understand the enormous satisfaction of taking down a huge empire that has caused death on such a mass scale, because, as he emphasises, this represents up to 10% of the elephant population within Africa for a single syndicate.
The EAGLE Network has also led the prosecution of the head of wildlife authorities in one of the countries they operate in – a high-level government official. Putting him in jail was a very meaningful result for them, not only because of the conviction itself, but because of what it meant for the entire system. Breaking down corruption, he suggests, is breaking down the confidence that criminals have in corruption as a means to escape prosecution.
Their emphasis on media and publicity also means that their fight against traffickers shows that there is a route to functionality within a corrupt system. Within the countries they operate, it is unheard of for authorities to go to jail. So, if a government official can be imprisoned for wildlife offenses, they could also be convicted for something else. People start to understand that they have the potential to bring change to the country. For Ofir this is a social impact far beyond conservation, and is the most meaningful aspect of their work:
“For me the most satisfying thing, even more than getting politicians into jail, criminals into jail, police commissioners into jail, and even the kingpins of transnational organised crime rings into jail, even more than that is the social impact – the possibilities of what can be achieved in a country that doesn’t function well.”
You work on a model of a small but very active team – what is its make up?
In each country there is an elite team of mostly nationals of that country. They have undercover investigators, legal advisors and operations and media coordinators, but “what is common to all of them is that they are activists – they have the fight in them”. They may not come from conservation – their drive may come from their upbringing, their education, a past experience that has created the fire in them, or even some kind of faith – but they are recruited for their fight.
In the early days of LAGA they were all volunteers giving their passion and determination to a cause. Nowadays, with operations in many countries, there is still a significant volunteering period. Many people don’t pass that trial period, but the rest are employed, though Ofir stresses that the salary is a humble one – far less than would be possible with a large conservation charity or NGO.
NGOs in these countries can have much higher-than-average salaries, says Ofir, so working for an NGO can appear very lucrative. Working for part of the EAGLE Network though is different, and it attracts a very different kind of person.
‘This is not a career! Conservation doesn’t need careers; conservation needs fighters. Fighters because we are not really winning. It needs something very extreme’.
And are you regularly looking for people to join the team?
The immediate answer to this was “constantly”. And Ofir reasserts that for them it is not about skills, as most of the skills can be taught. What is most important is the character of the individual:
“Character is something far more difficult, as you cannot train character. We look for people who are very much individualists, very much non-conformists, people with a sense of justice and a very strong inner-motivation for this difficult fight”
The work they do involves stress, hardships and danger, and they regularly work at night and at weekends. It is not at all comparable to a job.
For current opportunities look on the EAGLE website.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow a similar path into activism?
The first thing he advises is to take a big breath before jumping into conservation education, or an internship or low-level paid job.
By going into mainstream conservation you learn from what is already there, and you inherit old ideas and also mistakes. He claims many aspects of wildlife conservation need to be shaken up, and we need a new generation of conservationists with new ideas. Seeing conservation from the outside allows for innovation, and allows you to see change from the perspective of what ought to be.
As he did on arriving in Cameroon, he says it is important to adopt a critical view:
“How do you adopt a critical view? You can’t adopt it from the inside. You will sit in an office or classroom and people will explain to you about conservation. But that’s not the way to do it if you want to really make an impact within conservation rather than build up your career. If impact is your priority, take a step backwards and go and see conservation. Go as an independent traveller somewhere. Look at things from the outside of conservation, not from the inside, and I predict you will find something that you are passionate about”.
And how does a small group of activists become a functioning organisation?
Here Ofir laughed as he said, “I learned as I went, you know!” He said that you learn from what you do. You try, and fail and continue to try, but the most important thing is that you take a fresh look at a problem. The rest, he says, is rather easy because it is organic:
‘So, how do I form an NGO? – well, just look it up! And then you register. And then you get some friends to join. Ok, how do I recruit? You start talking to people – sometimes you fail, sometimes you succeed. You just do it! We went from an idea to the first ever prosecution in all of Central and West Africa in seven months. Without a donor, without an office, working without a computer – without anything. We’ve done it – it proves that it is possible. But you need to want it really, really hard’.
What is your focus right now?
It is evident from our conversation (and also our attempts to arrange a time to speak!) that Ofir is as actively engaged in the operations and investigations now as he was at the beginning.
Across the network they have four or five traffickers arrested a week. Their commitment also remains to specific, tangible results. Of the arrests, the conviction rate is between 83% and 87% – and Ofir is keen to clarify that it’s not just conviction but jail terms. From a decade-long baseline of zero convictions when he began, that’s an impressive rate for any country.
By not deviating from their original vision the EAGLE Network has achieved huge success across an ever-increasing number of countries. This is what they were created to do … and the determined fight continues.
For the background of the LAGA organisation read The Last Great Ape – Ofir Drori and David McDannald.
Author Profile | Claire Tyrrell
Claire is a wildlife enthusiast and keen amateur conservationist, and has volunteered long-term in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centres across Africa and Asia – largely working with primates. Having worked in the TEFL industry for quite some years (teaching, writing and editing) she now works for the National Trust in visitor welcome and volunteers when possible for the Hampshire Wildlife Trust.
Connect with Claire on LinkedIn.