A shaky video is posted to WildLeaks’ blog. At first, it just looks like any other (badly shot) home video of a safari trip, until you see the barrel of the gun. The person holding it is standing in the bed of a truck, moving at speed, as wildebeest flee in different directions. It’s unclear how long they’ve been pursuing them, but eventually the truck comes to a stop. A man gets out and circles an exhausted, terrified animal, all while performing the moves of a cartoon boxer. He grabs the animal by the horns and the video ends, but the torture does not.
“The shocking videos by [safari organizers] Green Mile showed hunting with automatic weapons, having children hunt with automatic weapons, gunning down fleeing animals from moving cars, capturing baby animals and torturing dying ones, and using bait and lights at night to attract unsuspecting animals – all illegal acts” reads the summary of events in WildLeaks’ report, released today.
Green Mile was part-owned by Sheikh Abdulla Bin Mohammed Bin Butti al-Hamed, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family and a government official. After receiving the videos via WildLeaks, Crosta launched a campaign along with the Humane Society International and the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the US Ambassador to Tanzania to revoke Green Mile’s safari hunting permit. In 2019, they achieved just that. It’s one of a number of depressing stories told within the report’s pages.
WildLeaks’ report stands out. If you’ve ever taken the time to read similar publications from more conventional non-profits, you’ll know they can be a heavy read. Lots of formal language broken-up with the occasional infographic. Crosta’s goes in a different direction and doesn’t just feel like a document designed to pat-down people’s pockets (though no doubt that’s part of the goal). What it mostly achieves is reminding us that environmental crime affects us all, and will only continue to do so in increasingly direct ways.
“ELI believes it is important to revise the current, outdated narrative around environmental and wildlife crime, currently focused on poachers and end consumers” one sections reads. It’s the same section that talks about WildLeaks’ forthcoming graphic novel. This fusion of the dire truth with surprising ideas seems to be WildLeaks’ MO. Crosta’s clearly not just targeting the suits, he’s going after young, connected adults to achieve his stated goal of transforming “information into concrete actions.”
“I am writing to you from [redacted]. We received a report about the regular smuggling of African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) from Nigeria to Lebanon, with the complicity of members of the Lebanese community living in Nigeria, such as travel agents, freight forwarders, employees of MEA (Middle Eastern Airlines) used to ship the birds. We did not receive any additional details.
This species has suffered a massive population decline in Nigeria, currently only extremely low and scattered populations are reported although there appears to be an ongoing illegal trade from Cameroon. There is no CITES export quota for P. erithacus from Nigeria. Thanking you in advance.”
As Crosta tells it, most NGOs or activist groups are going after the wrong people. “Because it’s so much easier to bust, you just see the low hanging fruit, so the local NGO is happy, they get more money, and the law enforcement is happy.” This has been the situation since basically forever, and Crosta wants to change it. In this regard, Crosta isn’t unique. “One of our key messages in relation to environmental crime is that environmental crime is as serious as any other crime you would think of, like drugs smuggling or human trafficking.” Maria Socorro Manguiat, UNEP’s Senior Legal Officer and Head of National Environmental Law Unit, told Engadget.
UNEP is the UN’s environmental program, and it’s on the exact other end of the spectrum to WildLeaks: well-funded, austere, political and procedural. But the two organizations do share some ideologies, despite their different approaches. “[There’s] this notion that there are two categories of crimes, the real crimes and the not-so-serious crimes. And we find often that environmental crimes tend to be put in the second category” Manguiat added.
And she’s right. Unlike the war on drugs, the war on poaching, animal trafficking and environmental crime has historically focused on the foot soldier, the equivalent of going after the street dealer. That tends to be what we see on the news, and terms like “poacher” have become ingrained in our mind as the real, if not only, villain. Rarely do we think of the network behind the poacher, the illegal logger or the terrorist groups directly profiting from unsanctioned charcoal trade.
Where the differences between organizations like the UN and NGOs like Crosta’s become apparent is in how they can operate. The UN is deeply sensitive to international political challenges where environmental crime is carried out. It plays a much more advisory role, offering legal solutions, facilitating meetings between nations or helping train customs officers on what suspicious items or traits to look out for. As with all large organizations, things are slowed down by processes, summits, seminars or whenever it’s possible to get the right people in the room together. UNEP does have online efforts and uses resources like Google Witness, but diplomacy and education are its main tools.
WildLeaks operates directly with local informants and its band of agents, moving with all the hustle of a small team mostly operating online. Crosta would likely scoff at the idea of training customs officials, as in his world, they’re often the very person committing the environmental crime. “There was this leak, I think a couple of years ago, we received an anonymous message saying, ‘There is a small plane that leaves Lusaka Airport every Monday morning and is very shady. They bypass customs, they get a lot of crates on it’” Ironically, being nimble sometimes throws up situations you’re under-resourced to investigate. “If you are a big organization, you send someone to Lusaka International Airport and be there on Monday morning. That’s why we have to share with the media, with law enforcement, with NGOs.” Crosta told me.
“They were talking about wildlife trafficking and then they shifted to human smuggling and then to money laundering.”
As if to illustrate that point, Crosta told me about one of WildLeaks’ bigger profile undercover operations. It reads like the setting for a showdown on an episode of Narcos. “In our investigation a couple of months ago, we were in a Latin American country. We met very important Asian traffickers … At the same table, there was a guy involved with narcotrafficking, another one working for customs. And us, our undercover team filming everything and recording everything” he said. “They were talking about wildlife trafficking and then they shifted to human smuggling and then to money laundering.”
I asked Manguiat what UNEP thinks about organizations like WildLeaks. I was expecting a diplomatic answer about how they empathize with their cause but wish they would operate in more conventional channels with more traditional methods. But that’s apparently not the case. “The work of these independent groups is appreciated because I think there is a recognition that part of the challenge in many countries is the low capacity to do this kind of monitoring, this investigative work because the resources are stretched.” It seems, then, that there’s a potential for symbiosis between smaller, more agile groups like Crosta’s and monoliths like the UN.
Crosta’s story about the round-table meeting of several organized crime bosses is a good example of the boots-on-the ground investigations the UN can’t do. During one of our conversations, he held up a sheet of card. On it were several photos of people with their names below, like an arts-and-craft version of a crime movie suspect board. “This is a crime map of illegal fishing in Mexico. And of course, if you see any name, please don’t mention the names.” Fortunately, I couldn’t read any names.