Much of the world’s media has moved away from investigative journalism and wildlife reporting, but National Geographic is moving more systematically toward them, believing that effective wildlife protection begins with objective storytelling.
We’re launching Wildlife Watch on NationalGeographic.com to give voice to exploited or vulnerable wildlife around the world, to put a face on what’s threatening such animals, and to tell the stories of the men, women, and organizations who protect the natural world.
Wildlife Watch is an outlet for stories by National Geographic's new Special Investigations Unit (SIU), an effort with two main objectives:
- To expose commercial-scale exploitation of endangered or valued natural resources.
- To empower civil society, including local journalists and non-governmental organizations, in places where natural resources are at risk.
Here’s a story that illustrates what we’re about.
Africa's largest ivory seizure in 25 years occurred after a port official in Togo's capital, Lome, did a very simple thing: He reversed how he looked at things.
In May 2013, I was invited by the U.S. State Department to travel to West Africa to talk to government officials in Togo, Benin, and Ghana about my experience as a National Geographic journalist investigating the illegal ivory trade.
The timing was good. Togo, a West African country with few elephants of its own, recently had been implicated in two massive ivory seizures in Asia. The seizures represented roughly 800 poached elephants, several times the official estimated number of elephants in the entire country.
Meeting with government ministers, journalists, and academics, I told the story of elephants being killed across Africa to supply the Chinese market, and I suggested that Togo's new deepwater port might attract even more ivory smugglers. Soon after, Togo’s Minister of Security, Damehane Yark, told his men to begin X-ray scanning outbound shipping containers for ivory, in addition to examining inbound containers for narcotics and other contraband.
We’re launching Wildlife Watch to give voice to exploited or vulnerable wildlife around the world, to put a face on what’s threatening such animals, and to tell the stories of the men, women, and organizations who protect the natural world.
It wasn’t long before the team of Lt. Essossimna Awi, an official with Togo's Office Against Narcotics and Money Laundering, discovered 4.2 tons (3.8 metric tons) of ivory hidden inside a shipment declared to contain timber and cashews.
Awi arrested the container's owner, Dinh Huu Khao, a Vietnamese national living in Lome who owned a timber shipping company specializing in sales to Vietnam. Last month, Dinh was convicted and sentenced to 22 months in prison for smuggling.
An Interpol Red Notice has been issued for his suspected accomplice, Dao Van Bien. Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe has called upon the world to join the country in its fight against the illegal wildlife trade. “It’s clear to me that protecting our wildlife should no longer be the preserve of conservationists,” he said. “We all need to play our part.”
Outbound versus inbound: A simple change in perspective exposed a criminal underworld, with important results.
Wildlife Watch is not a place for stories about animals in isolation. It’s about animals and people and the ever-growing challenge of navigating our relationship with the life around us. You will see that in our stories: We want to expand the range of narrative tools and investigative techniques used to illuminate wildlife crime and protection. We’ll bring you the latest news, such as the story yesterday about whether an international agreement will be good for vulnerable species, and we’ll engage you in a conversation about wildlife crimes and punishments.
Decades ago, Tom Wolfe unveiled his New Journalism as an antidote to the stale, drama-less reporting that had characterized nonfiction writing.
Stories about the exploitation of wildlife have lived in an outdated era too, often relegated to “weird news” because of the oddity of the creatures smuggled or the creative (and bizarre) ways people dream up to move them.
The stories, more often than not, have been victim-based: graphic and gore-filled scenes of lions or elephants being killed, scenes that transform what is a crime story into horror film genre.
People have a sympathy ceiling for innocent victims, but they have a bottomless appetite for crime stories. It’s time to move away from victim-based journalism. We need to move, for purposes of poetic symmetry, from “victim” to “villain.” One need only switch on the television or walk into a movie theater to know that the most compelling form of criminal storytelling is about the people behind the crimes.
Today, the illegal killing each year of tens of thousands of elephants, rhinos, pangolins, freshwater turtles, tuna and marine mammals, and the destruction of life-supporting trees goes on, often unabated. Part of the responsibility for this failure lies with us storytellers.
Links between illegal wildlife trade and corruption, murder, rape, and terrorism are proven. Even so, many of the world's most important decision makers in wildlife protection—judges, prosecutors, legislators, politicians—have little understanding of the significance of wildlife crime.
What happened in Togo shows that positive change can begin with a story. We invite you to help us in our storytelling mission by suggesting ideas and sharing tips about illegal or questionable activity you come across.
You can find all Wildlife Watch stories here.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and The Woodtiger Fund.
Follow Bryan Christy on Twitter.