Hidden Cameras, Prosecutions, and Passion: Confronting the Corruption at the Heart of Africa’s Illegal Wildlife Trade


Nadia De Souza., Mongabay.com

Date Published

Tackling the illegal trade in wildlife requires tremendous concern for the welfare of other species and a passion for change. Ofir Drori, founder of EAGLE (Eco-Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement), embodies both of these traits. Mongabay recently interviewed Drori about how his organization strives to combat corruption and save species endangered by the illegal wildlife trade in Africa.

Globally, wildlife poaching and organized criminal trade in wildlife have escalated over the past 10 years, decimating populations of large mammals, particularly those with high-value body parts such as tusks or horns. Criminal syndicates increasingly control these activities and have become better armed and organized as the illegal trade—estimated at over $18 billion per year—becomes more profitable. These violent organized criminal groups use their illegal revenue to strengthen their organizations: employing more local poachers, buying impunity, bribing corrupt officials, and broadening their distribution networks.
To tackle a problem of this scale and gravity, Drori suggests that “the best approach to protecting species is to ensure the perpetrators involved in wildlife trafficking are prosecuted,” a solution he says is long overdue and for which he founded EAGLE (previously Last Great Apes Organization, or LAGA), in 2003.
OFIR DRORI: EAGLE tackles wildlife crime through innovative approaches that will catalyze a change in the existing systems of law enforcement. This requires shifting the focus from targeting small-time poachers to the prosecution of major dealers and tackling head-on key obstacles, such as corruption and the application of wildlife laws in Africa.
NADIA DE SOUZA: Describe the EAGLE model in very basic terms.
OFIR DRORI: The overarching objective of the EAGLE Network is to develop civic activism and collaboration with governments and civil society to ensure that national and international environmental legislation is applied. This is achieved through a program of activities: investigations, arrests, prosecutions, and publicity. Through this program, EAGLE aims to generate a strong deterrent against the illegal trade in wildlife and related criminal activities, including corruption.
The EAGLE Network consists of agreements between EAGLE and national NGOs that are suitable to implement the project’s law enforcement model. It is a basic social franchise system, where the program’s model and operational procedures and systems are replicated in eight different countries. The EAGLE Network fights to trigger a paradigm shift in the international conservation system and aims to address illegal trade through:
Shifting the focus from poachers to traffickers: If there’s anything that poaching has taught us, it is that if poachers go to jail, they’ll be replaced. Those who are less replaceable are higher up the chain.
Setting a national measurable indicator for enforcement: We ensure that a major trafficker is arrested, convicted, and imprisoned at a rate of one per week.
Fighting corruption to get the law applied: The obstacle to wildlife law enforcement is NOT lack of capacity, but corruption. We track the entire law enforcement process from investigations to jail visits to confirm the execution of sentences.
NADIA DE SOUZA: How has your background in journalism and the military impacted your approach to wildlife conservation?
OFIR DRORI: I started 12 years ago as a journalist with a mission to write an article on the extinction of apes. Through my experiences while writing this story, and my encounter with a baby chimp during this time, I realized I needed to be the change I wanted to see, as Gandhi puts it.
Essentially, EAGLE (previously called the Last Great Apes Organisation, or LAGA) grew as a result of my concepts of conservation as a sluggish machine that is self-serving. This is why in a world of multi-nationals among the conservation industry giants, EAGLE stays small and slim, and to this day we do not own a single vehicle.
The military was something I had to go through, but I don’t think that influenced my choice to become an activist.
NADIA DE SOUZA: How do you integrate technology into a covert world where evidence, timing, and communication are critical for making successful arrests and prosecutions?
OFIR DRORI: We use simple and durable equipment, including hidden cameras and recorders during our undercover operations. We also use smartphones a lot, especially for recording, sharing locations, videos, and photos in real time. All our data is stored on computerized internal control systems in each of the four departments (investigations, arrest operations, legal follow-up, and media exposure), which enables us to monitor and push each department to achieve its monthly target and makes supervision easier.
This technology, in conjunction with the EAGLE team’s dedication, fighting spirit, and activism, enables us to effectively carry out our work.
NADIA DE SOUZA: How effective has your approach been in reducing corruption and wildlife crimes?
OFIR DRORI: At EAGLE, we work on a shoestring budget and have still been able to achieve success. We have been able to put more than 1,000 major traffickers behind bars, many of them kingpins. Compare this to the zero prosecutions achieved across Central and Western Africa before we set up EAGLE.
A recent EAGLE achievement against high-level corruption and complicity was the successful arrest of the former head of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Guinea, Ansoumane Doumbouya, for his role in assisting and collaborating with wildlife traffickers to illegally export several hundred apes and many other protected species, for more than five years. Although he was fired from CITES after suspicions arose regarding his role in illegal exports, he still held his position with the Ministry of Environment as commander of National Wildlife and Forestry Mobile Enforcement Brigade and continued to issue falsified CITES permits for wildlife traffickers.
A year-long meticulous undercover investigation enabled the EAGLE branch in Guinea—GALF—to arrest Doumbouya on August 21, 2015, as he delivered falsified CITES permits to a known international wildlife trafficker, Thierno Barry. Check out this hidden camera video footage showing Barry (who was also arrested) explaining how Doumbouya was involved in this corrupt system:
Doumbouya now faces charges from six months to 10 years in prison for usurpation of qualification and office, unlawful extension of authority, forgery on public and administrative documents, receiving, complicity, and corruption.
You can find more details on all the monthly arrests in each of the countries of operation on the EAGLE website.
NADIA DE SOUZA: How has wildlife trade shifted from the days EAGLE was first set up to the present day?
OFIR DRORI: It has gotten worse. The problems that existed previously are still bad, and we have changed very little of our global strategy. Things continue to get worse over time, and the majority of countries around the world have not been able to make a single prosecution of wildlife traffickers.
Conservation has to change from talking to action and revert back to activism and root values to make the fight work.
NAIDA DE SOUZA: What is your opinion on the overall state of poaching, wildlife trade, and trafficking worldwide?
OFIR DRORI: My opinion can be summarized in five points:
We do not have a poaching problem. Poachers do not work independently, they are merely the agents used by organized and coordinated traffickers who themselves are organized and coordinated by white collar criminals far away from the site of the crime itself. Arresting a few poachers of the hundreds that are employed by a single syndicate is not an effective method, yet global strategies to address the wildlife trade still prioritize this approach. I guess for most it is easier to chase poachers than go after the mafia.
There has not been an upsurge in elephant poaching. The massacre of elephants at a large scale has existed for many years, mostly silenced so it did not get public attention, but the problem is not new. It is worse than before, but the situation has been getting steadily worse, as opposed to being one recent upsurge.
A top-down solution is less effective. The expectation that heads of state in developing countries will make miracles happen in the field is an unrealistic one, as the corruption that facilitates wildlife crime is not effectively combated by the top. The only solutions that have been documented to increase arrests and prosecutions of major criminals are all bottom-up solutions.
EAGLE’s analysis shows that governance is by far a bigger problem than lack of capacity. Many times, increasing capacity of a corrupt system is not only ineffective but counter-productive. We need to shift away from focusing on building capacity to building governance and ensuring that these systems are transparent.
A demand-supply analysis in the case of transnational criminal syndicates is an over-simplification. The demand-supply equation does not work for the case of the illegal trade because the criminal organizations that are employing poachers are also making sure the demand is maintained. These organizations invest their revenue in stimulating demand, buying impunity, corrupting officials, and expanding ivory distribution networks.
NAIDA DE SOUZA: Do you have any tips for aspiring field conservationists?
OFIR DRORI: Go and be the revolution. Be the new generation that brings the heart back to conservation. Without the heart, you cannot win this fight. It isn’t so much about the skill, but the devotion. We need activists, not just scholars.
Go out and experience the world. The difference between an activist and a non-activist is experience. Experience changes you, shapes you, and helps you understand what it is you are working for. Everyone has far more ability to bring about change than what they realize. The passion that you gain from experiencing things for yourself will make you better at what you do and show you that, yes, of course you can do something and that, in fact, it is your responsibility.
The fight against wildlife trafficking and for these endangered species deserves more than it is given now. It deserves people who are activists and who are passionate and will get the job done, people who will be willing to fight for a cause, rather than having a nice, safe job.