Meet the conservationists

by ZSL on

Here at ZSL, we’re lucky to have some truly inspiring people and projects working to create a world where wildlife thrives.

As global leaders from around the world meet in London this week to identify collaborative solutions to combat illegal wildlife trade (IWT), we spoke to five of our conservationists in the field in Nepal, Cameroon, Indonesia and Benin about their work, the impacts IWT is having on species, habitats and people and why they’re passionate about what they do.

Tek Raj Bhatt
Tek Raj Bhatt

Tek Raj Bhatt is the Senior Programme Officer for ZSL Nepal. He has been involved with the development of several projects to reduce IWT, from implementing SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) in protected areas and setting up rapid response mechanisms to capacity building of law enforcement agents and judiciary.

Can you tell us about an example of the impacts of illegal wildlife trade that you have seen first-hand?

IWT has been a major challenge in Nepal for wildlife conservation. ZSL Nepal worked with the Ministry of Forests and Environment in support of the British Embassy in Nepal to manage the stockpile of wildlife parts that were collected over a long period. When we did the inventory of the specimens, I was astonished by the sheer number of these body parts. There were more than 4000 body parts that included rhino, tiger, elephant, chiru and more. The government burned the stockpile to send the message that wildlife is more valuable alive than dead.

Do you have a highlight or achievement that you could share with us?

We have had several successes in the last five years, from initiating SMART in Parsa National Park for the first time and setting up an anti-poaching Rapid Response Unit across tiger bearing protected areas to using advanced conservation technology. However, of these, I think the establishment of Nepal’s first Community Managed Pangolin Conservation Area (CMPCA) has had the biggest impact in the country to save this magnificent animal which is threatened by poaching. In the CMPCA, communities conduct regular patrols to protect Chinese pangolins, an EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species, from poachers.

What does a world where wildlife thrives look like to you?

A world where wildlife thrives would be where humans and wildlife live in harmony. Wildlife would have natural habitat that is undisturbed and roam without danger of being poached.

Dr. Andrew Fowler
Dr. Andrew Fowler

Dr. Andrew Fowler is the Tri-National Dja-Odzala-Minkébé (TRIDOM) Landscape Director for ZSL Cameroon. He plans and oversees all ZSL activities in the area, from supporting Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MINFOF) in protected area management and law enforcement actions to engaging with local communities and private sector operators to manage their resources and activities in wildlife-friendly and sustainable ways.

Can you tell us about an example of the impacts of illegal wildlife trade that you have seen first-hand?

I have personally seen over three hundred elephant tusks confiscated in Cameroon by MINFOF agents over the last eight months or so alone, and forest elephant populations cannot sustain this kind of poaching or they will be extinct in a matter of years. I have seen evidence of heavy trafficking of illegal wildlife products between Gabon, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo, which is one of the most active trafficking routes in the world.

Do you have a highlight or achievement that you could share with us?

During one of the ivory seizures by MINFOF eco-guards, they were offered a substantial amount of money to release the suspects and take no further action. The eco-guard team refused the money and continued with the seizure. This shows that there is a willingness by men and women working at the cutting edge of the fight against IWT who are prepared to do what is right no matter what the enticements or dangers they may face.

Why are you passionate about preventing illegal wildlife trade?

I have worked in Africa for many years and I have been privileged to see a host of animal species up close in the wild, including chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, pangolins, leopard, golden cat and bongo. I want to play my own small part in ensuring that these wonderful creatures endure into the next century and beyond.

What does a world where wildlife thrives look like to you?

Earlier this year I travelled with my team over twenty kilometres into the Dja Biosphere Reserve and put camera traps up to photograph wildlife that visit the large grassy clearing in the middle of the forest where animals aggregate to drink, graze and access rare mineral deposits, known as a bai. We obtained photographs of elephants, leopard, bongo, gorilla and monkeys grazing, drinking and moving unmolested through the area. That is what a world where wildlife thrives looks like.

Amandine Laure Toumbou Nouazi
Amandine Laure Toumbou Nouazi

Amandine Laure Toumbou Nouazi is the Dja Field Assistant for ZSL Cameroon. Based around the Dja Biosphere Reserve, her project empowers local communities and engages them in the fight against IWT by raising awareness on sustainable use of natural resources and supporting Income Generating Activities (IGA).

Do you have a highlight or achievement that you could share with us?

Our partner communities (Baka and Bantu peoples) are engaged in reducing IWT activities by denunciations through the Community Surveillance Network (CSN), Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) and ZSL radio programmes and implication in livelihood diversification (reducing bushmeat consumption and tree cutting). Livelihood diversification is being taken up after a period of training and support. Partner communities are benefiting from training and support on (Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) valorisation, tree-nursery production, garden and poultry and they are also better informed on wildlife law, particularly their rights and duties toward wildlife. Through all these activities, communities feel more concerned about and are participating more in efforts to tackle IWT. Denunciations are increasing and evidence of bushmeat consumption is reducing in partner villages.

Why are you passionate about preventing illegal wildlife trade?

Throughout my childhood, I was surrounded by animals in my parents’ house, so as I grew with them I developed so much love for animals. I first studied animal biology at university and after my Master in Hydrobiology and Environment, I started to work in wildlife conservation. It is the realisation of my childhood dream and a real passion for me to work for the conservation of animals, preventing illegal wildlife trade. In fact, I can’t really find words to explain the real reasons for my commitment, I am just very happy to do this work with all my heart.

What does a world where wildlife thrives look like to you?

For me, a world where wildlife thrives is like a small, special kids garden where everybody has his place to enjoy nature.

Aji Sora
Aji Sora

Aji Sora is the coordinator of the Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit (WCIU) for ZSL’s Tiger Conservation Project in Indonesia. The project carries out Tiger Research Monitoring through occupancy surveys and camera trapping and coordinates the Tiger Patrol and Protection Unit (TPPU), Wildlife Conflict Response Team (WCRT) and the WCIU, which conducts IWT investigation.

Can you tell us about an example of the impacts of illegal wildlife trade that you have seen first-hand?

During my field activity, many residents told me that it was hard to find the kind of wildlife that several years ago they saw all the time. Predators like the tiger and clouded leopard control the prey population, so the decline of these top predators means the prey population increases and becomes a pest, impacting the community living around the conservation area. Another example is the over population of insects. In our country, birds are a common commodity, especially singing birds. The population of various birds decreased in a decade due to IWT. In certain seasons the insects were everywhere, disturbing human activity and in some cases causing crop failure on rice fields, corn fields and other kinds of plantation.

Do you have a highlight or achievement that you could share with us?

Since I joined ZSL’s WCIU team, in collaboration with Regional Police, Nature Resource Conservation Agency and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, we have revealed more than 20 cases of IWT and more than 40 suspects have been arrested. There were thousands of various wildlife species, both living and dead, which were used as evidence. This is good and bad news. The high amount of cases indicates that law enforcement are aware of and prosecuting wildlife crimes, but in line with that there are high amounts of wildlife being poached. But the most important thing about our conservation work is that we have a great collaboration happening with law enforcement, from police and forest police spearheading wildlife law enforcement in the field to the judges in the courts who can maximise the punishment for IWT.

Why are you passionate about preventing illegal wildlife trade?

It is as important for us as it is for wildlife, as we’re protecting our neighbourhood too. Wildlife each have their own functions to keep the ecosystem stable, whether they are plants, insects, mammals, birds or fish. This is what I do to protect the ecosystem, our neighbourhood, our place for living.

What does a world where wildlife thrives look like to you?

It is a balance, where humans can live in harmony with wildlife. Our ancestors experienced it well, it is not impossible for us to establish the same ways as well.

Vincent Lapeyre
Vincent Lapeyre

Vincent Lapeyre is a Technical Advisor for the WAP, a transboundary complex of protected areas (W, Arli and Pendjari National Parks) in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, the last stronghold for lions, elephants, cheetahs and other emblematic species in West Africa.

Can you tell us about an example of the impacts of illegal wildlife trade that you have seen first-hand?

The most obvious impact of IWT is the visible decline of wild animals and the damage to landscapes. There are unfortunately lots of examples I could talk about, but one of the most significant to me is elephant poaching for ivory. The reason why it has such high value is ridiculous, and most of the final customers live very far from where elephants live. Finding an elephant carcass in the bush, that has visibly been killed for its ivory only, is a shocking experience, even when it’s the 20th, or the 50th you see… you can’t forget the method employed, you can’t forget the smell… but beyond these sad details, the most shocking is to think about the fact that such a species, whose intelligence and sensibility have been proven, could disappear within one or two decades because some people want their teeth… that’s the perfect illustration of human greed.

Do you have a highlight or achievement that you could share with us?

Earlier this year, following a training we delivered, the CAAT – the anti-traffic unit of Cotonou Airport – made the biggest wildlife product seizure ever recorded in Benin so far, with 513kg of pangolin scales. The CAAT told us that the training played an important role in this event, as they did not even know about the existence of the pangolin before and were consequently unaware of its trafficking and the level of it. Some basic skills they were taught during that training were used for the seizure and the regular advice remotely delivered by Christian Plowman, our Law Enforcement Advisor, played an important role as well. The main trafficker was then sentenced to three years of prison, which is significant regarding the law in Benin.

Why are you passionate about preventing illegal wildlife trade?

It’s true to say that we need wildlife. We need biodiversity, we need animals, plants and preserved landscapes. For obvious reasons, our own survival first. But from an ethical point of view, we also have to combat illegal wildlife trade. We cannot accept seeing all this life disappear in front of us. It is our duty to not let that happen. Earth is not human property, and we don’t have the right to erase so many species from the world.

What does a world where wildlife thrives look like to you?

I am tempted to say that it would be fantastic, but actually no. Don’t get me wrong – compared to the current situation, it would be fantastic indeed. But it should look like a normal world. The opposite, a world where wildlife disappears, isn’t the normal situation, even if this is currently where we are living. Humans are part of this world, just like wildlife is. We have to deeply think about how to share the planet with it. Then it might thrive… and nobody would regret it.

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