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Q&A With WildAid's Undercover Agent Peter Knights

Inside Base Camp With Tom Foreman
April 16, 2003
 
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.



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.

Tom Foreman: You even encountered one thing that I found astonishing, the idea that the Chinese organized crime people at one point had a scheme to buy up all the rhino horns then wipe out every rhino on the planet.

Peter Knights: It was a speculative plan to basically corner the market and then ensure that there is no new supply. And this is the problem we have, many of the local people, the poachers, many of them don't have much alternative. And there is a range of middlemen and those people just see this as a commodity. They don't care about the local people and they don't care if their environment collapses after they're out, because they'll move somewhere else.

Tom Foreman: Right now in stores and homes all across the United States, people are doing things, which are causing these places to be destroyed, animals to be destroyed.

Peter Knights: Yeah, I mean the United States is probably the second largest importer of wildlife after China and in many cases…

Tom Foreman: Like what?

Peter Knights: Well in many cases, we have things like turtle eggs for example. We do have things like rhino horn occasionally, and tiger fur, not on a huge scale, but it still happens. Bear claws. Caviar now is a problem in the Russian far east. The Russian mafia is involved in caviar smuggling and they're slaughtering sturgeon at a totally unsustainable rate. Cactus even from Mexico, large cactus being used for landscaping, being taken out of protected areas and brought over here.

Tom Foreman: What is your personal goal in all of this?

Peter Knights: My personal goal is to make myself unemployed. I'd love to go and sit and watch this wildlife and take photographs and things like that, that would be my goal to do that, but I've seen so many things going on and my conscience tells me that if I don't try and do something about this, there will be no wildlife to go take photographs of.

Inside Base Camp's Tom Foreman on Work, Guests

Presidents and prisoners; scientists and soldiers; the heroic and the hated—all have sat down with National Geographic Channel Senior Anchor Tom Foreman as he has traveled the globe for the past 25 years. Starting out in small town radio in Alabama, he progressed through local television to join ABC Network News when he was 30. For a decade he covered virtually every major news story for World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20 and Good Morning America.

Now, as host and managing editor of the Emmy Award-winning Inside Base Camp with Tom Foreman, he brings his years of experience—and dozens of riveting guests—to the National Geographic Channel at 12:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and Sundays at 11:00 a.m.

As the show's name implies, Foreman asks the intimate, revealing questions that cut to core of the passions that drive his guests.

Read an interview with Tom Foreman>>

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