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“Wildlife Trafficking Can’t be Eradicated Just by ‘Nice, Nice’ Campaigns”

A conversation with direct action conservationist Suwanna Gauntlett

Suwanna GauntlettPhotos courtesy Wildlife Alliance

Suwanna Gauntlett, founder and CEO of Wildlife Alliance, likes to call herself “a direct action conservationist.” For over three decades now, Gauntlett has been working on the frontlines of efforts to protect endangered species and forests across the world.

Born in San Francisco and raised in Brazil and Europe, she has worked on a diverse range of conservation efforts — from fighting to protect dolphins from drift nets in the South Pacific, to saving the Amur (Siberian) Tiger population in the Russian far east (where she worked with Global Survival Network to bring the tiger population back from only 80 individuals in 1994 to nearly 400 by 2000), to helping reverse the steep decline of Olive Ridley turtles along the eastern coast of India. For the past decade, Gauntlett has been based in Cambodia where she has been leading a sustained effort, in collaboration with Cambodian Government, to curb illegal wildlife trade and consumption.

Cambodia is one of Asia’s five main source countries for wildlife exported for traditional Asian medicine, exotic pets, and meat. It has one of the worst deforestation rates in the world. While the country has laws protecting wildlife and prohibiting their sale, they have been difficult to impose on ground. Back in the early 2000s, Gauntlett and a team of environmentalists advised and helped the new Cambodian government create a “Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team” —  Southeast Asia's first special forces unit to fight the illegal animal trade. The 14-member team is armed with AK-47s, has an informant network and anonymous tip line, and runs investigations and patrols by land, water and air. The unit confiscates meat, parts, live animals and tools of the trade – guns, knives, vehicles, and snares. The unique thing about the unit is that it’s financially supported and monitored by Gauntlett’s organization, Wildlife Alliance. Over 10 years in, poaching in Cambodia is a fraction of what it used to be. Gauntlett and Wildlife Alliance have also convinced the government to cancel about 28 economic land concessions over the years and saved over 2 million acres of forestland.

I spoke with Gauntlett a few months ago about her work in the field and her rather unique, and controversial, direct intervention method of wildlife conservation. An excerpt from our conversation.

Was there a key moment in your life that got you interested in wildlife and the environment?

I was six years old and I was going with our cleaning lady along a highway back to her village to play with her kids, as we usually did [when living in Brazil]. We usually stopped on the local market along the way. On this particular day we heard shouting and screaming and laughing at the market. So we went towards the crowd to see what’s going on. There were these men holding a live jaguar roped on to a stick. It was upside down and they were torturing it. Beating it and burning it. I was just at the height of the jaguar’s eyes and I could see into them. That changed my life forever.

You’ve worked on conservation projects across the world, but you seem to have spent the largest chunk of time in Cambodia. Is there a reason why you’ve been there for so long?

Yes, there’s a very good reason why I’ve been there so long. Our approach to biodiversity conservation is direct action with a sense of urgency. We don’t just do one project here, come in do a little bit of greenwashing, and leave. Which I feel quite a lot of NGOs do. They get opportunistic, they get a grant, they do a project, they do some type of activity that looks good in a newsletter, and three years later they are out. You can’t affect lasting change that way.

The Indo-Burmese peninsula is one of the hotspots for biodiversity in the planet … There was incredible opportunity in Cambodia because it was a young government with new ideas and a great willingness to make a difference. Other NGOs had been there for a while for biodiversity studies and research and workshops. But nobody was helping the government actually protect the forest and wildlife on the ground. So I built very strong relationships there and we have been fortunate enough to work with the government and create Southeast Asia’s only crackdown unit for wildlife trafficking. We are protecting the largest mainland rainforest still standing, which is also one of Asia’s last seven elephant corridors — the Cardamom Mountains. We are committed to preserving this ecosystem for the long term. It’s not completely secured yet.

rangers on patrolRangers on patrol in the Cardamom Mountains along with Wildlife
Alliance's Tatai Ranger Station advisor.

What are the major threats facing the forests and wildlife in Cambodia?

When I arrived in Cambodia about 50 percent of the country was covered with rainforest. There has been enormous amount of deforestation since then and the two main drivers are economic land concessions, which convert the forest to agribusiness, and slash and burn customary rice cultivation. And contrary to what a lot of people believe in the West, slash and burn [agriculture] is not sustainable; it’s not rotational. It goes straight into the forest and irreversibly destroys more and more tropical forest every year. There maybe one location in the Cardamoms that I know of where the forest regrows because the soil is good. In all the other ones, it’s immediately invaded by bamboo vine or by an invasive grass called alang- alang or some other grass.

So what’s the country’s forest cover now?

The official number is still 50 percent but I think the unofficial number is about 30 percent. But if you ask the forestry administration they will deny that. I’m saying this on the basis of satellite photographs, aerial surveys, and experience in the field.

The Cambodian government is obviously aware about the two deforestation drivers. What is it doing to combat this?

I would say at of the Southeast Asian countries Cambodia probably has the highest level of sophistication in terms of understanding forest protection and what effective forest management means. However, having said that, that’s all on paper, right? And the biggest difficulty is how that’s implemented in the field. And it’s not a lack of goodwill, it’s a lack of funding. Unfortunately, most of the funding coming into the country is for policy-making, restructuring, decentralization, institutional strengthening etc. But there’s very little, if any, for implementation [of prevention strategies] on the ground. So that’s where Wildlife Alliance comes in. Our role is to help governments that want to protect their biodiversity and forests actually do it directly, on the ground. So that’s law enforcement, that’s building relationships with communities and helping them stop slash-and-burn, that’s bringing in alternative livelihoods that totally wean [villagers] off of forest living. So it’s not a better variety of non-timber forest produce,, it’s not let’s make rattan chairs, it’s not  ‘Oh, one better variety of rice” — it’s completely — “we are no longer collecting from the forest but we are preserving the forest as watershed.” That’s the key.

If you are trying to wean people away from this kind of agricultural practice, how do they feed themselves in these remote areas?

The food supply comes from intensification of agriculture. We’ve now really specialized in intensification of agriculture in tropical soils. Usually villages have reservoir’s that are not well maintained. And there’s no assessment for how much water is needed for each family. So we do that, we help them maintain the reservoir on an annual basis, calculate the amount of water required per family, put in the low intake drip irrigation and then teach them techniques that are adapted to high peak drought seasons, it’s a problem now as the drought season is longer and longer. We also show them how to produce during the monsoon season when the rain is destroying everything. We help farmers therefore go from producing one harvest a year to having harvest every two weeks. Of course, it’s not enough to give them modern techniques, you also have to build community-led organizations to boost the revenue, agriculture stores, community funds with micro-credit, revolving funds with savings and loan systems… So, basically, we’re rebuilding civil society in these places.

So that’s a far cry from what a wildlife rescue team is supposed to do, right?

Well this has always been part of our park management model — you’ve gotta address all the drivers of deforestation.

Suwanna with logsGauntlett rides a truck with recently confiscated luxury timber.

You’ve said earlier that the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team embodies the belief that strong law enforcement is the first line of attack against trafficking. With just one team how much can you cover at a time? What areas do you think are being neglected?

We do need several units throughout the country because we are patrolling 23 provinces. We need more systematic patrolling of roads going to the borders or into the cities. A lot of areas are being neglected because we are undermanned. We don’t have the money to do more. It takes a long time to go to the extreme northeast — to Ratnagiri, for example. It’s not possible to do systematic patrolling and respond to all the information that we are receiving because the quantity of information coming in every day is really overwhelming. Right now, traders are hiding their catch. If they have restaurant, or they are taking their goods to the Vietnamese border, it’s very hard to find it. You’ll have a mad chase after a truck, but actually the goods are in another car. And then in the restaurants, you won’t see the wildlife, but if the forester threatens the cooks, she will tell you that she has a house where she’s hiding the wildlife. So they’ll go to the cook’s house and they still can’t find it because it’s hidden in a cupboard under towels and things — it’s just unbelievable!

What has your rapid rescue team achieved so far?

The teams are always divided into two or three people. They have confiscated over 52,000 live wildlife in the past 11 years and at least 2,100 offenders have been caught and arrested and fined. We’ve reduced elephant killings in the Cardamoms by 95 percent.

When I arrived in the country in 2000, wildlife was sold everywhere, in markets in restaurants, in people’s homes. You would go to a general’s home and you would see a tiger cub in a cage in his living room as a status symbol; having bears in your backyard was a status symbol as well. The prime minister would go to golfing tournaments and be invited to dinner afterwards and the biggest honor was to serve him a big bear paw in a bowl of soup. We have rescued all the bears in all the restaurants in Phnom Penh. Some of these bears were waiting for their next paw to be cut off. I cannot tell you what a difference it is now in Phnom Penh. You will not see animals in cages.

I think we have deterred the wildlife trade by 70 percent. It didn’t take that long in Phnom Penh since the campaign was coordinated by the prime minister and he ordered everybody to cooperate with the forest department and Wildlife Alliance. The mayor of Phnom Penh would tell citizens to stop eating wildlife every morning during his five minute radio address, promising to personally close down restaurants that didn’t stop serving wild meat. And sure enough he closed down a VIP restaurant that was still serving wildlife after five-six months. Even further, he had 55 restaurants and wildlife market owners sign a charter of ethical conduct to stop selling wildlife.

We also did campaigns all over the country. At one point we were able to reduce wildlife consumption in the five main cities outside Phnom Penh. Eighty percent of this was through a mixture of announcements that [crackdowns were] going to happen and then by conducting repeated crackdowns.

This strategy clearly serves as a deterrent. But there’s also a deep-seated cultural idea that wildlife can or even should be consumed. There are traditions involved. How do you work around that?

We believe law enforcement is the deterrent that is needed because this is a true genocide and all these species are just… It’s a hemorrhage out of the national parks. And right now the situation is so bad that this is the only thing you can really do. Of course you can do awareness [campaigns], it’s not going to change people’s behavior. For example, the moment we don’t patrol Road no. 4, which is the road going in to Phnom Penh, wildlife is stacked and sold again. It’s like drugs. It’s not something you can eradicate just by “nice, nice” campaigns. We are more interested in working on the supply end because of the rapid decimation of species. No amount of workshops and platforms for discussion and policies and institutional strengthening in going to make a difference. It’s law enforcement in the field that works.

Outside monitoring is also very important. It’s basically organizations like ours that are there with the rangers and helping them to do this. I really feel that the role of conservation NGOs has to evolve to being a support to local governments who want to protect their biodiversity but don’t have the money or the capacity or technical expertise. What we are doing is very controversial because we are actually providing salary supplements to government officers.

Why are you doing that?

Rangers, especially in the Cardamoms, they would never do the work that they are doing if they aren’t paid. I mean, can anybody live on one bag of rice a month? How do you feed your family? The reason [forestry officials] often end up colluding with the poachers is because the amount of money that you can get from the ivory in Africa and Rosewood in our cases is so enormous that it’s almost irresistible for them. That’s why they need outside monitoring. And you need to pay the rangers salary supplements — that money is not going to come from these countries, it needs to come from us, the international community. If we believe that these species are our responsibility collectively, we need to pay the supplemental salaries these rangers need to have.

You often have to work in hostile environments. Do you worry about your safety, especially given Cambodian environmentalist Chut Wutty was killed earlier this year?

I did in the beginning, but we are the first line of defense for these animals and the forests and if we don’t do it, nobody else will. I think our approach is not antagonistic, we work with the government, we work with the communities and we bring sufficient benefits.

In the beginning our strict law enforcement was really criticized but now it’s stated as the best in the country. So if we stick with it, we live there with them, we’re on the ground, we build relationships, I don’t think [anything bad] will happen.

And the criticism we do is never in public. If I have a criticism, I have an in-person meeting with the person concerned and I tell everything one-on-one… It’s all done very properly and professionally, so that no one loses face. So I get a lot of support because I’m kind of in a political network. I’m always consulting with [government officials] and advising them. If there’s a problem I ask them to intervene and ask them how we can support them to intervene.

So it’s not only frontline work, you have to do a lot of diplomacy.

A lot! That’s what I do all day long all the time. I would say I do 80 percent diplomacy and 20 percent fieldwork. But I have managers in place in the field overseeing the law enforcement side.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your work so far?

Government! The government of Cambodia, and most governments in Southeast Asia, are not cohesive. So even though the national government will say something, sign a contract, give us a mandate to do something, it is always the case that one department in the ministry, and it’s the economic land concessions department in Cambodia’s case, that’s going to go against us, constantly, constantly, constantly. Because we are there to keep the trees standing and they are there to convert the trees to sugarcane plantations. So it’s constant battle. That’s our biggest challenge, it really is.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of you work?

I think it’s seeing this immense forest of the Cardamoms stay protected and seeing this living ecosystem. You know, you fly over it early in the morning, and you see the water steaming out of the canopy and creating rain — that’s been the most rewarding. And seeing these silent forests we entered in the beginning of 2002 become living forests today. Gibbons everywhere, birds everywhere, you can see clouded leopards, you can see long-tailed macaques on the road, wild boar, deer — it’s come back to life.

What’s in store ahead?

I believe our Cambodia team is here to stay. Now I really want to go Africa to help  protect the elephants, if we can get the funding that is. The situation is terrible there. Our team is all ready to go. We have been talking to USAID contractors. Nobody that I know of to date has any contract work in law enforcement in the national parks there.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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