Last February I wrote a piece on the London Declaration, a cross-national agreement to tackle the illegal wildlife trade that is pushing species including the tiger, elephant and rhino to the brink of extinction.
Following the signing of the agreement, activists from 136 cities took to the streets on 4 October 2014 for the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, which according to Care for the Wild was the largest ever global wildlife protest. This was captured in my Highlights of 2014 piece I published in December.
In the ongoing battle against the wildlife crime syndicates leaving a trail of destruction across Africa, I would like to raise awareness for the conservationist leading the charge on the frontline, Ofir Drori.
Drori is an Israeli writer, activist and founder of the Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA), the first wildlife law enforcement NGO in Africa tackling corruption and organised crime within the illegal wildlife trade.
Drori has been described as the Israeli Indiana Jones by Condé Nast Traveler, who also awarded him their 23rd Annual Environmental Award in 2012, whilst the BBC News said of Drori: “He has succeeded in sending scores of wildlife criminals to jail and shows no sign of stopping.”
Following military service in the IDF that ended in 1998, Drori decided to embark on a solo backpacking trip to Kenya. Desperate to capture a puritan taste of the backpacker spirit, Drori cut all ties with civilisation as he hiked alone along the beaches of Lake Turkana in an Into The Wild style adventure. The journey almost ended in disaster when Drori became cut-off and almost starved to death.
He was rescued by the hospitality of impoverished Samburu and Turkana families. It was whilst he was being nursed back to health through bouts of malaria that he encountered a Catholic priest who inspired him to focus his life on benevolence.
In an interview with the BBC News in 2007, Drori was asked why he specifically chose to help animals, Drori said: “In Israel, we had a river called the river of crocodiles. There are no longer any crocodiles there now. We now take our children there and tell them we used to call this Crocodile River, but they have since been killed. The same thing will happen to animals in Africa if nobody fights to protect them.”
Drori moved from Tel-Aviv and became a part-time freelance photojournalist in Africa, interviewing child soldiers in war-torn Sierra Leone and reporting on the conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.
It wasn’t until 2002, whilst conducting research for an article about Cameroon’s illegal wildlife trade, that Drori’s destiny revealed itself to him. He would later say: “I arrived in Cameroon to write an article about the extinction of endangered animals – I still haven’t finished that article.”
A baby chimpanzee, whose mother had been killed by bushmeat hunters, was being held captive by a poacher. Drori impulsively produced some papers that he waved at the man claiming authorities governing the prohibition of the illegal trade of endangered species were on their way to arrest him. The chimp, which was gravely ill, was abandoned and Drori reportedly slept inside its cage as he nursed it back to life.
Following this incident, Drori remained in Cameroon and founded LAGA. In 2003, just seven months after the organisation was registered, it brought the first wildlife crime prosecution in all of West and central Africa. After discovering that Cameroon’s presidential guard had been trained by the IDF, Drori solicited the help of other Israeli expats to secure a residence visa in the Cameroon so that he could continue his conservation work with LAGA.
The landmark case was the first of hundreds of successful prosecutions that helped propagate a zero tolerance approach to illegal wildlife trafficking in Cameroon whilst inspiring a new generation of corruption fighters including lawyers, journalists, police officers and government officials.
Two years later, Drori used his experience of fighting corruption in the judiciary to found another NGO called AC-Cameroon, which focuses on establishing Anti-Corruption law enforcement in Cameroon, and involving citizens in the fight against corruption through direct legal action.
By 2006, a major illegal wildlife dealer was being arrested each week, one of the highest rates in Africa, with around 87% put behind bars from the moment of arrest with no bail granted. Many of those sentenced receive terms of up to three years imprisonment and fines as high as $200,000. In contrast, some African countries impose a fine of just $16 for the crime of illegal ivory trading.
LAGA uses dangerous methods to ensure convictions stand up in court. Drori uses a network of LAGA activist spies who carry out sting operations to expose corrupt officials and ensnare wildlife criminals. These spies pose as buyers or traffickers in order to catch the criminals red-handed so there is no doubt about their guilt during trial. One such case revealed an attempt to sell a live hippopotamus for $80,000.
Drori accepts that his hard-line approach is a risk, “it is dangerous work sometimes,” he admitted “but someone has to do it”. LAGA activists, police officials and eco-guards have been attacked by poachers and bush meat traders in the past. One activist who has been attacked twice said: “This is part of the work… you must be able to face risk.”
In 2011, five ivory dealers kidnapped a LAGA activist after discovering a hidden recorder on him. Drori himself organised a counter-sting operation promising the kidnappers access to more-senior members of the LAGA before using the deception to rescue his colleague.
“Many conservation groups focus only on recording instances of poaching or ivory seizures,” said Mary Rice, executive director of the U.K.–based Environmental Investigation Agency, which has worked with LAGA over the past decade “but Ofir has been a pioneer by placing himself in situ and getting criminals behind bars.”
LAGA will even go to the extent of shadowing police officers, prosecutors, judges and prison wardens to ensure that perpetrators are unable to bribe their way out of a conviction, a tactic which is commonplace among criminals in Cameroon.
As well as its work with stopping the illegal wildlife trade, LAGA is also heavily involved with the media. It publishes a magazine, Wildlife Justice, and encourages newspaper, TV, and radio journalists to educate the public on the vast benefits of conservation.
Its media output is approximately 365 pieces per annum, or one per day across various platforms, which sends a strong message to poachers that wildlife laws are enforceable and carry strict penalties. This is a key deterrent which is helping to bring the illegal wildlife trade down.
In October 2012, WWF awarded its highest honour, the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal, to Ofir Drori at Buckingham Palace. Describing the award as “a great honour”, Ofir said: “I hope this award also inspires a shift to a more activist approach and bolsters the fight against corruption in our quest to save wildlife – while there are still magnificent elephants and other animals left to save.”
WWF Director General Jim Leape says: “It’s thanks to people like Ofir Drori that we still have a hope of keeping vulnerable elephant and other wildlife populations thriving – and keeping a spotlight on the poaching crisis that threatens them. I applaud his bold and impactful work.”
Drori’s home is a bedroom adorned to the LAGA office, itself a modest one-story building in Yaoundé. He is known locally as “the man in black” compliments of his sartorial taste. His lifestyle is basic. He doesn’t own a car, stove or refrigerator. He hires no domestic help. He deliberately prescribes to this ascetic insisting that LAGA’s success “isn’t due to talking and fancy equipment but to passion, activism, and being willing to take on a fight.”
Drori has now extended his battle beyond Cameroon. His award winning LAGA model is now replicated in the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon and Guinea. He has also helped train wildlife law enforcement officials in Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi.
In Guinea, he posed as a buyer at a luxury hotel in a sting operation that helped the police to arrest seven major smugglers. They had painted their ivory ornaments black to disguise them as ebony for export.
His team also uncovered paperwork implicating a ring that had smuggled more than 100 live baby chimpanzees into Asia, “one hundred baby chimps indicate a massacre,” says Drori, “because bush hunters have to kill the adult chimps that defend them.”
“It is rare to have someone so committed, who is willing to risk his life in undertaking dangerous missions,” said Grace Mbah, a representative of Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife.
In 2013, Drori documented the incredible account of his fight against the illegal wildlife trade through the publication of The Last Great Ape: A Journey Through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent, co-written by David McDannald. The book recounts the incredible and enchanting story behind LAGA and some of the heart-pounding, espionage-style raids carried out by the organisation.
In reviewing the book, The Guardian said: “Ofir makes the case that activism and dedication to a cause are still relevant in a cynical modern world. This dangerous and dramatic story is one of courage and hope and, most importantly, a search for meaning.”
Drori is a reminder of how one man can bring about monumental changes for the greater good against the unlikeliest of odds. He is, one could argue, an endangered species himself.