Meet the man who’s fighting Africa's worst wildlife traffickers
Hopscotching between nine countries, activist Ofir Drori is saving animals and making a difference.
Fighting organized crime and corruption to put wildlife traffickers behind bars is not how Ofir Drori’s career began. Drori was born in Israel, and first went to Africa in 1994 when he was just 18. It was there that he spent years as a writer, photographer and adventurer traveling the most isolated parts of the continent documenting conflicts and human rights issues. He was in Cameroon writing an article on the illegal bush meat trade when he met a young chimpanzee that would change the course of his career forever.
He told the men trying to sell him the chimpanzee that he represented an American non-governmental organization (NGO) and would put them in jail for trafficking. The ruse worked, and they abandoned the chimp into Drori’s care. He named her Future.
From activist to enforcer
In the course of the experience, Drori discovered that in the previous 10 years, there had been few if any incidents in which Africa’s many wildlife trafficking laws had been enforced.
“As a journalist, the first thing I asked when I arrived to this issue as an outsider was a very quick question: How many times has the law – which is sufficient and has jail terms – been applied to get traffickers to jail? And the answer was zero,” he tells From the Grapevine from Kenya.
In 2003, Drori formed the Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA). He wanted to go beyond what a non-governmental organization typically does – education, conservation and policy – and create a group that could help African governments enforce their wildlife laws. “I had a very clear baseline and a very clear goal,” he says.
LAGA has now evolved into the EAGLE Network – Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement – an alliance of organizations in nine different African countries including Cameroon, Kenya, Guinea, Congo, Gabon, Togo, Benin, Senegal and Uganda.
More than just poaching
Most of us think of poaching as the crime of killing an endangered animal to sell to the highest bidder – whether it’s elephants, apes or African grey parrots. But according to Drori, the difference between poaching and wildlife trafficking is like the difference between street-corner drug pushers and the Colombian drug cartel.
The illegal ivory trade is not supplied by a few lone poachers carrying rifles; it’s led by massive inter-continental organizations. Drori’s group estimates that one group, the Teng Syndicate, was singularly responsible for the killing of 36,000 elephants.
“Many of the NGOs still talk about poachers, but poachers are the lowest level of a far bigger pyramid. The idea of poaching is a misunderstanding that is leading us and getting us away from the real problem,” Drori says.
The vast African wildlife trade can basically be boiled down to one widespread issue: “In my analysis, the first obstacle to this problem is corruption. And the second is corruption, and the third is also corruption. By far, that corruption has been the major issue,” Drori explains.
Success and beyond
Since his work began, Drori’s organization has been involved in more than 1,400 arrests and prosecutions of major wildlife criminals. “In every case, I can tell you who was trying to bribe who because we make recordings of the incidents, intervene and enforce,” he tells us.
By most standards, that high number of arrests and prosecutions would be considered a huge success, but Drori says that word is often overused by NGOs. Besides, he points out, their work is far from over.
EAGLE Network activists are involved in arrest operations almost daily – six traffickers in Uganda arrested with 109 pieces of hippopotamus ivory, a trafficker arrested in Senegal with 1,081 illegal wildlife items including ivory and elephant hair bracelets, and two traffickers arrested in Cameroon with 13 chimpanzee skulls. You can follow the EAGLE Network Facebook page for regular updates and photos, and you'll see the breadth of their efforts.
Additionally, Drori has won multiple awards for his work. The World Wildlife Fund, which calls Drori a "tireless anti-corruption whistleblower," bestowed him with their Duke of Edinburgh conservation medal. He's written a book about his experiences called "The Last Great Ape: A Journey Through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent." And a filmmaker has made a documentary about his heroic mission.
But as his list of accomplishments grows, the stakes get higher because his group continues to go after bigger targets.
“All of the operations have a risk factor. We want to make sure that all of our activists are getting home safe and we don’t take it for granted,” Drori tells us. They have very strict security and contingency procedures, and he approves every arrest operation plan personally. Once an operation is put into motion, they follow it in real time in a central command location.
But there are security incidents that arise from time to time. “There are times that I really cannot sleep before we find an activist who has been missing for an hour," he says. "With operations in nine countries, that’s a huge responsibility for the lives of people."
In 2013, he had a near-death experience with a crocodile in Ethiopia. While recovering at a hospital in the coastal Israeli city of Haifa, he eventually met his future wife. He says his ties to his home country have grown stronger.
In Africa and around the world, he’ll continue to share his new model with other activist groups. To the general public, his message is largely one of hope. “What I want to say is that it is possible to uproot corruption, to build consequences and slowly establish this as an accountability mechanism.”
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