In comic books and movies, masked super heroes always sense when there is trouble afoot, and they swoop in to save the day. Real life, of course, is different, unless you know Peter Knights. He is a co-founder of a group called WildAid, which among other things travels all around the globe helping local governments catch poachers and bring them to justice.
A ruggedly handsome Englishman, the aptly named Knights used to work as an investigator exposing illegal trade in endangered species. Then in 2000, he helped found WildAid when he became convinced that exposing the problem was not enough.
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Funded primarily by private foundations, WildAid assists governments in training and equipping anti-poaching patrols. But the group also employs non-traditional maneuvers, such as posing as buyers and infiltrating poaching rings. Shark fins, bear bile, pelts from rare animals; whether the items are taken for fashion or old-fashioned health or fertility rites, Knights goes after poachers of every stripe. It is dangerous work, yet as Knights shakes my hand, I can tell he is the kind of man who does not shrink from such challenges no matter where he finds them all over the globe.
Tom Foreman: Tell me about the nuts and bolts of how you make this work to stop the poachers.
Peter Knights: Well, what we normally do is we'll go in and make a threat assessment, with the park authorities, we'll go around and try to assess where the problem areas are, what the particular animals or plants that are being taken out, and then devise with them a strategy on how we're going to address the situation. That usually involves basic equipment for the rangers. They may need uniforms, boots; things as basic as that. They may need vehicles to get them around and then they need to know how to do their job properly, so that people aren't just chased around with guns, they're dealt with properly, their rights are respected, they're given a fair chance to sort out the situation.
Tom Foreman: A lot of places like Cambodia, where we see reserves or protected areas, they're really only protected on paper, right?
Peter Knights: Absolutely. Cambodia is a particularly bad situation. The country has just come out of civil war. There was basically genocide against any intellectual people in the country. This is a new nation being born, (and it) has none of the things that we assume of civil society. One of the things that I hope that we are doing is that we are trying to build and show by examples how they can have a structure of a society and this is just one element of it.
Tom Foreman: One of the tools you use all the time is going undercover. This has to be dangerous work.
Peter Knights: It is and unfortunately it's really the only way of doing this. Unlike most crimes of humans there is no victim here to report the crime, and the person buying it (the poached items) is not going to report it either. The only way you can really find out what's going on is to get into that trade cycle.
Tom Foreman: You've been in situations where you're dealing with local organized crime bosses.
Peter Knights: And it very often is, because what you find is the same people who are moving wildlife are moving drugs. Sometimes they're involved in prostitution. You never quite know what you're going to turn up when you get in there, so it is risky. We try and do it in the most professional way we can, we try and have convincing covers. We try and have backup for our people.
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