A challenge from the reporter who blew the lid off of Thailand’s Tiger Temple and exposed illegal wildlife trafficking from a Buddhist monastery.

Wildlife crime by Steve Winter

For the past few years, much of my work as a journalist has focused on wildlife and environmental crime. I’ve covered poaching busts and seizures of everything from pangolin scales and big-cat skins to rhino horn, live turtles and songbirds. I’ve reported on the Asian, African and South American markets that sell animals live, dead and in parts, and about the consumers that drive this black-market trade. I’ve written about China, the largest consumer, where many endangered species products are luxury items bought by the wealthiest and most influential as a way to flaunt power and gain prestige. I’ve also explored the trade here in the United States — the world’s second largest consumer. I covered the ubiquitous bird trade in Latin America, where ownership of pet parrots and other birds is so rampant that few realize these animals are endangered, or that it’s against the law to buy or keep them.

One thread links all of these stories: illicit wildlife trade has become big business. It’s a $19 to $23 billion dollar a year industry, run by international organized crime syndicates — often the same people responsible for trafficking guns, drugs and people.

Yet from where I sit, there’s never been enough mainstream coverage on this massive loss of life on Earth. And despite the scope of the crisis, lately it’s become even harder for journalists to sell these stories.

Here’s the harsh reality of media today: When it comes to possible nuclear war with North Korea, millions of U.S. citizens potentially losing health coverage, massive climate-change-charged hurricanes or mass shootings in a nightclub, rock concert or Sunday church service, wildlife stories become a hard sell. A story on coral bleaching, pangolin poaching or tiger trafficking is just not going to grab an editor’s attention.

Another challenge is the time scale of the demise. Although scientists say this is becoming a full-blown crisis that will ultimately affect all life on Earth, it’s a slow-motion train wreck in terms of the news cycle. This doesn’t necessarily work well for media outlets focused on maximum page views, Tweets and shares.

And it’s always difficult to sell these stories unless there are dramatic or bloody headlines.

But wildlife trade is a dramatic and bloody business, although it’s rarely seen as such. And we’re witnessing an unprecedented surge in poaching and illegal trade of wild plants and animals, which is now occurring at an industrial scale.

Growing demand is driving what has become a large-scale massacre of African elephants for ivory, rhinos for their horn (which is now worth more than gold or cocaine on the black market), tigers for their skins. A census published in 2016 found that 144,000 elephants disappeared from 15 African countries in less than a decade. The Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group reported in 2016 that the number of African rhinos poached in Africa had increased for the sixth year in a row.

Perhaps 3,800 tigers still roam the wild, split among the five remaining wild subspecies, meaning that only a few hundred wild Siberian, Sumatran, Indochinese and Malayan tigers survive.

These are the iconic creatures that make headlines, but this massive illegal industry in wildlife has put innumerable animals on the fast track to extinction. We’re losing species at more than 100 times the normal rate. From a scientific perspective, this loss is so rapid and extreme that it’s often called “the Sixth Extinction.” In July, Paul Ehrlich and colleagues categorized the situation in even more catastrophic terms, calling it “biological annihilation.” If this level of widespread slaughter were killing human beings, we’d label it genocide. Many of the world’s most iconic, beloved species — as well as animals we’ve never heard of — could vanish from the wild or disappear from the planet within our lifetimes.

Numbers like the ones I’ve cited have become the standard journalistic narrative, and I’ve written plenty of these stories, too. While they matter, numbers don’t tell the whole story — and now, a decade-plus into the current poaching crisis, many readers are aware that elephants and tigers are in the crosshairs.

We need to go beyond quoting statistics on the carnage and reporting from the surface. I’m challenging myself — and challenging other journalists — to dig deeper. And not just on wildlife crime, but on broader environmental crime that’s killing wildlife, poisoning land and felling the remaining tracts of forests that pump out the oxygen we need to breathe, store carbon and filter the water we need to drink.: illegal logging, illegal mining, illegal land grabs that demolish forest for industrial plantations — and more.

We need to start asking tough questions. Who’s behind large wildlife trafficking operations? Who’s laundering the profits from illegal wildlife, logging and fishing operations?

Which U.S. companies buy palm oil from newly or illegally deforested land — and who are the local officials turning a blind eye and/or financially benefitting from rainforest slash-and-burned for crops or cattle ranches?

Who are the customs agents, local police, military or government officials who facilitate illegal activity? (Al Jazeera’s deep-dive investigation in the Poacher’s Pipeline documentary did just that — linking illegal rhino trade in South Africa to the country’s head of state security and Asian embassies.) Who gets the money from trophy-hunting operations in Africa that purportedly benefit wildlife conservation?

More of my fellow reporters need to dig into corruption and wrongdoing. Follow the money.

But we also need to write the success stories. We need to cover innovative initiatives and technologies that are effective — and examine why they’re working. Some examples: WildAid makes Hollywood-quality PSAs starring Chinese business leaders and celebrities like Jackie Chan and Yao Ming to discourage Asian consumers from buying endangered species. The U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance is working with the U.S. government urging travelers to avoid buying souvenirs that come from imperiled species — items like conch shells and tortoise shell jewelry.

I’d like to share the impact of one of my stories, produced last year: an investigation into the Tiger Temple in Thailand.

For a decade global news stories alleged that Thailand’s Tiger Temple — a Buddhist monastery that doubled as a tourist attraction where visitors petted, fed and took selfies with tigers — abused its cats and might be involved in illegal wildlife trade. That was the narrative that had been published in innumerable stories by media outlets across the globe. But no one ever dug in to find out for sure.

Then, in 2015, I was approached by Sybelle Foxcroft, a former source whom I’d interviewed as part of a book project. Foxcroft told me she had proof that the temple was trading tigers into the black-market trade in wildlife, and soon began feeding me documents. It launched an 11-month investigation.

Through Foxcroft and other sources, I obtained a trove of information. It included leaked audio of the temple’s abbot talking about trading tigers; numerous eyewitness accounts of disappearing tigers; a tiger trade contract with a Laotian tiger “farm” signed by the abbot; emails and piles of documents, spreadsheets and data. I was given a videotaped interview with the monk who unlocked the gates on evenings when three tigers vanished in December 2014, tigers that were microchipped and therefore traceable, as well as the temple’s CCTV footage from those two nights.

In January 2016, National Geographic published the results of this investigation in a feature story that included a 7 ½–minute video I co-produced with photographer Steve Winter. It included strong allegations of illegal international tiger trafficking by the Tiger Temple that began in 2004 and continued for a decade.

It was a challenging story for many reasons. First off, I’m not trained as an investigative reporter. I don’t speak Thai. Much of the material I gathered had to be translated, and since Thai-to-English translations are not exact, key sections of video, audio and documents had to be translated three times to ensure I had it right. Deep government corruption and a cultural proclivity for “saving face” — aka not revealing wrongdoing — made it necessary to confirm all facts with many sources. I ultimately interviewed 70-plus people from across the globe. Trying to probe possible criminal activity within a religious institution in any country is extremely difficult, and that was certainly a hurdle as I tried to investigate an abbot and a monastery in Thailand, a devout Buddhist country.

With leads from many colleagues and sources, it all came together, and the world took notice. The day after publication, the story was picked up by the Bangkok Post, by Thailand’s top TV news station and by international media. The coverage prompted outrage from the public and wildlife groups, and sparked a campaign by the nonprofit Sanctuary Asia, which buried the environment minister’s office in letters and emails.

Four months later, under intense pressure, the government shut down the Tiger Temple. In the first of two follow up stories, I reported what happened: Thai officials confiscated all of the venue’s 137 tigers. They discovered 40 tiger cubs frozen in the kitchen’s industrial freezers, 20 more preserved in large glass bottles and other endangered species products. Police arrested two monks trying to drive away in a car filled with tiger contraband.

I’ve continue to follow the story. No one has gone to court, and the Tiger Temple has formed an offshoot company that’s trying to open a zoo — which will include tigers.

This story had global implications. The growing demand for tiger products is being fed, in part, by captive-breeding facilities in Asia — and this growing market places the last 3,800 wild tigers in the crosshairs.

So how do we produce these deep-dive stories — especially as freelancers — in today’s media market? It’s a serious challenge. I worked on the Tiger Temple story for 11 months; the last seven weeks were 12-hour days, seven days a week. I was given bare-bones travel expenses for one trip to Thailand and a small budget for experts to translate Thai audio, video and documents. I was paid a fee for the story and the video — but frankly, if I break down my payment by the hour, I was making less than I would have behind the counter at a fast-food restaurant.

That story fell into my lap, and I found myself amidst a whirlwind. Now, whenever I can, I’m trying to work smarter: applying for grants and angling multiple stories from my reporting to broaden the income stream.

There’s another important consideration in doing this work. When young journalists speak to me about wanting to cover the illegal wildlife trade, I remind them that this is, first and foremost, crime coverage. That means serious safety considerations for ourselves and, sometimes, for our sources, whose lives could be at stake if their identities are revealed.

Let me share a painful example. I obscured the identity of my main source on the Tiger Temple story, a trusted Temple insider. But the Bangkok Post then dug in, discovered who he was — and outed him. Since then, the man has received periodic death threats and hasn’t slept in the same place for more than three nights in a row — for the past 18 months. It’s not surprising; there was a lot of money involved. This man helped shut down a $3 million a year tiger tourism operation — plus whatever the temple may have brought in from wildlife trafficking.

Another ethical issue is what we report. For example, what are the ethics of revealing an undercover method used by wildlife investigators if it means that this tool is outed — and can no longer be used to investigate wildlife crime? It’s something to consider.

These are important stories, and they’re not just about the demise of individual species. Each of these animals is part of interwoven ecosystems that have evolved in synchrony over millions of years. Pulling threads from this fabric of life has cascading effects that reverberate throughout and across systems. Take elephants: They’re the landscapers of the savannah, eating shrubs and tree sprouts that would transform the land to forest. In the process, they keep the land open for antelope, zebras and other grazers. They dig for water with their tusks, creating watering holes that other animals use to survive. African forest elephants spread seeds farther and more effectively than any other forest animal on the continent — and some plants rely entirely on these pachyderms for dispersal and survival.

But at the current rate of slaughter for their tusks, wild African elephants could disappear in a decade. And much of the African continent could suffer forever in their absence.

It’s just one example of why wildlife stories matter and why it’s important for journalists to keep them in the public eye.

Some sources for wildlife crime stories:

The National Whistleblower Center

Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge

WildAid

© 2017 Sharon Guynup. All rights reserved.

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Sharon Guynup

writes about wildlife and environmental issues and is co-author of Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat. She is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a National Geographic Explorer.

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  • valeriemyra

    Thank you so much for publishing this. I hoped and prayed that the temple who have to shut down. Every thing uncovered was a horror story. I agree with you that more reporting needs to be done. I am a wildlife/environmentalist activist and do what I can to educate others and to help put a stop to the killing and destruction. People have lost their connection to the world around them, to their ‘home’. Keep your articles coming Sharon.