Toad to Toad: The Fight to Protect Elephants

Chris Dietrich CdeP 1993 is interviewed by Laura Van Winkle James CdeP 1993.
For this installment of the Toad to Toad series, I had the honor of chatting with my classmate Chris Dietrich CdeP 1993. Chris worked as a Criminal Intelligence Officer for INTERPOL, and as a consultant on wildlife trafficking investigations including for private foundations. The views expressed below are his own. This Toad to Toad conversation covers topics ranging from how Chris discovered his passion for fighting elephant poaching, the process of bringing poachers to justice, the difficulties of fighting poaching, and his advice for alums and students who might be interested in an animal conservation career. Chris and his work are an inspiration. If we are going to save endangered wildlife and preserve existing wilderness, we need many people to follow in his footsteps. This interview is not only a fascinating to read, it also highlights a very important field of work. I hope you enjoy some of the highlights from our conversation below.


Laura Van Winkle James CdeP 1993

Laura: You started talking about fighting elephant poaching while at Thacher. What inspired you? What things that you learned at Thacher helped most along the way?

Chris: The answer is not really related to Thacher or due to any one thing. I have always loved animals and, even as a child, I had some sense that animals in my backyard were special but were not as critically important as endangered species. Adding to that, in my early teen years, and at Thacher, I believed in going somewhere exotic. It was almost the idea of an escape, if you will, from parents, rules, boarding school. So, that might explain part of why I fell in love with elephants.

Plus, the elephant is a symbol of other things—of history, of animal sentience, and of humankind’s impact on the natural world. Elephants and their ancestors evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and are the largest of the land creatures left on earth. They also exhibit tight family units led by a matriarch, and exhibit care and compassion. But in the late 80s and early 90s there was tremendous turmoil in many parts of Africa, and this was the time when elephants were being literally exterminated for their tusks. As a teenager, I saw newspapers with images of elephants that had been shot and their tusks cut off. This slaughter was just for human greed and to create ornamental carvings. From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, the population of elephants in Africa was reduced by more than half. So, it was very dire.

While at Thacher, I was lucky to take biology classes from Ms. Sines, who imparted the idea of saving species and an interest in wild creatures. She was one of my faculty references for college applications, where she wrote that I wanted to fly in Africa in a machinegun-mounted biplane protecting elephants. She was absolutely correct! I was also getting my private pilot’s license while at Thacher. I guess I was dreaming big. I never got to that point yet [flying in the biplane], but it is still a dream.

Another Thacher experience that influenced me was a trip to the Ecuador rainforest and Galapagos Islands with our teacher Mr. Harris and other students. It was the ability to do something where you get well beyond your own frontiers.

It is interesting because there was a great love of the outdoors at Thacher and the teachers were eco-friendly. We were attuned to caring for our horses and to camping and leaving the campsites clean. But beyond that, I do not recall being largely motivated or encouraged to save incredible landscapes or species that were threatened. This was probably more a sign of the times.

Laura: Starting at a poaching crime scene, can you walk me through what you do and the process of bringing poachers to justice?

Chris: The focus of law enforcement agencies, whether police or wildlife authority, is to determine the identity of the poacher and then arrest and prosecute the individual or individuals. Wildlife crime scenes, even in remote jungles, can have interesting evidence. For example, the type of bullets used to kill an elephant or rhino, and cartridge casings, give information on the type of weapon used (i.e. hunting rifle, automatic rifle, etc.) and on the country that manufactured the ammunition. That kind of evidence can start to tell you the weapon type or who imported the ammunition. Often, the poachers also leave physical evidence such as pocket litter, maybe an article of clothing, for example. It is not uncommon to find small pieces of evidence that can lead to a conviction. Even the DNA of the animal can be used to prosecute individuals caught with seized ivory or rhino horn. Critical to all this is collecting evidence in a proper manner and adhering to the chain of custody so that the defense attorneys cannot suggest that evidence was mishandled.

At Interpol, we trained rangers on how to handle the crime scene. Quite often, this is a crucial stage that is performed incorrectly and where evidence is lost or mishandled. Many of the same issues regarding crime scene management can be applied to the raid of a poacher’s residence or a trafficker’s business. The careful collection and labeling of evidence, and the deliberate and comprehensive interview of suspects and witnesses, is paramount to building a case that can be successfully prosecuted.

Identifying a poacher long after the animal has been killed is usually impossible. DNA testing, especially for ivory, is an expensive task. However, seemingly innocuous evidence can be quite powerful when added to information from witnesses in nearby villages, or even collected during subsequent law enforcement operations against a poaching gang. Incredibly, there is no shortage of instances that these criminals, and the traffickers they supply up the supply chain, use their cellphones extensively to send photographs of contraband such as tusks, send incriminating texts, or make a pattern of telephone calls to co-conspirators or higher-level perpetrators.

Unfortunately, many African wildlife agencies that handle anti-poaching operations are focused on catching the first level poacher. They are essentially treating the large-scale poaching crisis as it once was—a couple of guys killing a few animals to eat or to sell the skins or tusks to traders. This is seen as a low-level crime and the perpetrators are usually fined—there are rarely custodial sentences. Wildlife and police agencies in Africa regularly do not assign their best investigators or prosecutors to these cases. Many local judges don’t understand that elephants are important for tourism and the local economy. Nor do they understand how critically threatened elephants are. Their attitude may be, “Well…he killed an elephant but he’s a father of five and he needed the money.” Beyond that, members of law enforcement and the judiciary are subject to bribes and threats, and quite often both simultaneously.

Nowadays we are facing poaching that is being conducted at the behest of or to supply international organized crime syndicates. Going after the individual poachers is necessary, but this must also be coupled with conducting complex national and international investigations into the higher-level dealers and traffickers and kingpins. Quite often I’ve explained to African police and wildlife officials I trained or worked with that this war is not entirely unlike trying to prevent the trade in drugs, where the focus can be too much on the small dealers in the streets rather than the narcotics kingpins. My work has been to advise a number of African law enforcement agencies on conducting these types of investigations, and to advise some NGOs and donors on this work. It is not enough to seize one ton of ivory in a shipping container and arrest the truck driver transporting it to a port such as Mombasa in Kenya. The truck driver is a small piece of a much bigger and more complex puzzle. The far more important aspect is moving from that driver to freight forwarders, consignors and consignees, and to those syndicate members most responsible for orchestrating the trafficking. These cases are far bigger than one national park and the endless supply of young men willing to risk their lives to earn a living as poachers. These cases are also bigger than only one country. The syndicates operate seamlessly within a region such as East Africa, or between continents. National law enforcement agencies on their own are often not a suitable counter to these syndicates because their interest and jurisdiction usually ends at their borders.

Laura: Did you have any success catching larger kingpins?

Chris: There has been a real lack of success across the board on identifying, arresting, and prosecuting kingpins. It is my biggest frustration with this arena. Most of the good news about kingpins being arrested is put out by NGOs in order to appeal for additional funding from private donors to continue their successful work. But I have seen this information embellished time after time. Very few people have any sort of vision as to the identities of all the syndicates and their members, and even less of an idea of how to go after them.

The reality is that the truck drivers transporting ivory get arrested, or the couriers with rhino horn are arrested at an airport. National police agencies in Africa and Asia have been more interested in taking a photo of the seized contraband and proclaiming a success. Very rarely are these seizures followed by intensive investigations using call logs and electronic evidence, financial evidence, proper questioning of suspects, etc. This is because conducting that sort of work costs money and time, is rarely a national priority, and the case officers quite often are not well versed in conducting these types of investigations. On top of that, the cases often lead to the country’s elite who protect the traffickers. Bribery is a major issue, simultaneous with death threats. So, it is hard to really figure out where cases are dropped and why—is it a lack of evidence, a lack of know-how in conducting basic investigations, or something much darker? There are a lot of good people with wildlife, police, and customs agencies working on these cases, but they are drowned out by a system that is stacked against them even when they are willing to work hard and take risks. Then even after the investigators line everything up correctly, the prosecutor can be bribed or threatened to deliberately lose the case, or the judge can be similarly affected. Some NGOs have done a good job of keeping track of cases and regularly pushing governments to act since they can take several years to be prosecuted, by which time many observers lose track.

All of this is just to go after a criminal syndicate’s operations in one country, but transnational organized crime is, by its very nature, adept at operating in multiple countries simultaneously. So quite often, the higher-level crime bosses won’t be in the same country where the crime is occurring. And investigating them requires sustained and comprehensive financial crime analysis, which is something that police in many of these countries lack as a skill set. With big ivory seizures in Africa, there are usually excellent leads pointing to individuals or companies in Asian countries, and there is almost never a serious attempt to share information between law enforcement in other countries. For example, a perpetrator might regularly use his cellphone to call and send incriminating photographs to a possible accomplice in a neighboring country, or on another continent, but nobody connects the dots to look at the bigger picture. We are leaving far too much criminal intelligence on the table and doing nothing with it.

With the United Nations, I worked for eleven mandates as an investigator for the Security Council documenting violations of arms embargoes on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, and Liberia. With this we had a mandate to move between countries to carry the investigation to its conclusion. So, we could pursue all leads for an arms flight originating in one country, refueling in another, dropping its weapons in a third, and the final transport of those weapons to an embargoed zone in a fourth country. Or we would get the cellphones of mercenaries and militia and trace their cross-border attacks between two countries, then further trace their links to paymasters in a third country. These investigations worked, but on the wildlife trade this sort of regional or transcontinental approach is not happening, which means the highest-level perpetrators are never apprehended. It is not because wildlife trafficking is more complex than arms trafficking—on the contrary, arms traffickers are more adept and secretive and there are more risks involved in running guns than contraband elephant tusks. The catch is we have the wrong people investigating wildlife trafficking for the most part.

Laura: How do the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work on wildlife conservation assist this cause?

Chris: There are several international NGOs involved in the law enforcement side of wildlife conservation, particularly in Africa and Asia. Their work really falls across a spectrum of assistance, from funding investigators so that they can go after small traffickers to supporting and training national investigators and prosecutors, to helping bring together multiple law enforcement agencies from the same country or between countries to focus on particular criminal cases. A number of private philanthropists are also helping shape the activities in this landscape and are often the ones funding the riskier and less public investigations conducted or supported by the NGO community. In other countries, NGOs provide direct mentoring to wildlife agencies charged with wildlife trafficking investigations.

A monumental challenge is that NGOs are often focused on a particular country, or wildlife species, or even a protected landscape in a country. As a result, there is an overwhelming lack of coordination between the various NGO driven law enforcement efforts. Moreover, there is also a very serious lack of information sharing between NGOs. Many groups have information on traffickers and some evidence but there is not a common intelligence picture compiling all these separate threads. As a result, transnational organized crime groups involved in the wildlife trade are often several steps ahead of the investigators, if they are even known to investigators. This is not the fault of the conservation NGOs. Many NGOs want to apprehend the kingpins, and may even receive serious funding from philanthropists by promising to do so, but this is rarely something they can deliver on given the complexity of trafficking and investigating. The reality is that most trafficking in endangered species goes completely unnoticed and without serious fear of apprehension. The rewards for those involved with trafficking are so high compared to the risks.

Part of the problem is that the majority of NGO investigators in this space come from a biology or conservation background and simply do not have the skill set to conduct complex national and international investigations. We need more professional investigators in this space—ex-police, DEA, intelligence, etc. Then we need to embed these professional investigators with national law enforcement agencies so that everything feeds into one common intelligence picture that has a global reach. Otherwise we are playing a version of whack-a-mole, and we are not winning.

Laura: What about China’s decision to shut down the legal trade of Ivory. What will the impact be?

Chris: In general, what you need to do to end poaching is to cut off the demand. This is a simplistic law of supply and demand—no more buyers means no more poachers. It is absolutely critical to substantially reduce demand even if it cannot be eliminated altogether. China has decided to ban the domestic sale of ivory which is tremendous news, and Hong Kong will do the same. But Chinese citizens can still buy ivory in neighboring countries and smuggle it home. So, it all comes down to enforcement. Hopefully NGOs such as WildAid that have done tremendous work on wildlife product demand in Asia will also help to convince more and more consumers to not buy these products. We also see Chinese billionaires starting to make big moves in supporting wildlife conservation projects. However, I remain very wary of being optimistic. Massive growth of the Chinese economy means more people can afford ivory carvings. I worry this will outpace the success of demand reduction campaigns. Plus, if people start thinking that elephants will go extinct, which is the model given current poaching rates, then ivory looks like a smart financial investment. If people start speculative buying then we could get to a really scary place pretty quickly.

The key to addressing the elephant poaching crisis is an adage that a friend of mine developed: "Stop the killing, stop the trafficking, stop the buying." It is a multi-stage process where we cannot rely just on one end of the continuum. While we might be able to reduce the demand for ivory trinkets in Asia primarily, how long will this take? Because we don’t have very much time. Perhaps a couple decades. So, while we’re working on demand, we still need to expand the anti-poaching operations in protected areas. We need to make it more difficult to kill elephants. And we need to save critical elephant populations especially in Central Africa, where the forest elephant is being exterminated before our eyes. Lastly, knowing that we cannot just have a static defense around every protected area and elephant migration routes through private land, we need to put maximum pressure on all levels of the trafficking chain. Taking key middlemen out of picture through successful law enforcement operations and successful prosecutions will begin to deter international syndicates by raising the costs of their business, and by severing trading connections that will take time to rebuild.

Despite the near total ban on the domestic ivory trade, the U.S. market is still one of the top few markets for ivory. You can bring ivory into the U.S. if it is a hunting trophy. And there are cases of antique dealers selling “wooly mammoth” ivory or even antique ivory pieces that were really procured recently from poaching in Africa. This is why states are banning the trading in antique ivory. We in the U.S. need to push for the strongest laws possible even though this will hurt the genuine antiques business for items inlaid with ivory. The risk is just too great that the antiques market continues to be used to launder ivory from elephants killed last year.

Laura: What advice would you give to a Thacher student or alum interested in an animal conservation career?

Chris: This comes back to advice Ms. Sines gave me when I was deciding between fieldwork on bighorn sheep in California or working for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., in some sort of junior assistant role. I chose the position in D.C. because it sounded more like a career path, but I should have done the field work. My advice is to do as much as you can in the field, where you gain credibility, and of course tremendous experience and perspective. There is always time to go back to HQ. After freshman year at Princeton, I heeded Ms. Sines’ advice and worked as a volunteer for the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, which led to yet more Africa work thereafter. It was my gateway "drug" I suppose. I fell in love with Africa, and I also began establishing my credibility in the field. Funny enough, after almost 24 years, I am still in touch with the people in Namibia and included them in one of my Interpol training exercises in that country.

It is also critical to remember that when you are young, nobody really wants to give you a shot in the field. When I was at Thacher, I remember writing letters and sending faxes to so many NGOs in Africa. And nobody wanted a high school student. I felt like I was getting rejected from my dream. These days there may be more structured programs where you donate financially to the organization that brings you over to a developing country to assist in a variety of humanitarian or environmental projects. One just needs to be wary of organizations that are more geared to making money, and making your parents feel safe, while you get very limited experience somewhere exotic. Luckily many colleges and universities now have pretty good Africa programs you can get involved with.

It is also important to remember that the more you branch away from the more famous endangered species and look to those that are less newsworthy, you may find a niche. Conservationists are fighting with each other to divide up who gets to save the elephants and rhinos in East Africa. But there are opportunities to work on lion projects since these predators are under much more threat than elephants. Or maybe a project on the brown hyena, or pangolins, etc. Increasingly, human-wildlife conflict is also a key cause limiting the viability of protected spaces, as well as wildlife migration corridors through private land. So, one does not just have to work as a biologist to save animals. One could also work on more local conservation field projects in North America since these would be easier to access, and that would give you some of the right experience to go to field projects abroad. This comes back to the advice I received on starting with bighorned sheep.

Lastly, one must remember that an animal conservation career might not be the best way to save animals. I have seen billionaires who made their money elsewhere have tremendous impact on environmental protection through funding projects. More realistically, of course, is the need to have other specialists like the person who designs drones or computer chips for tracking wildlife. While this is not direct field work, you just need to remember that wildlife conservation is your passion, and you need to come back to it. I believe I am now able to have a greater impact on saving wildlife because I can bring my experience from the UN, International Criminal Court, and investigative NGOs. That and I don’t think I would have been a very good biologist.
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