Ofir Drori has gotten lost in Kenya’s wilderness, rescued a baby chimpanzee from traffickers in Cameroon, escaped death threats in Nigeria, and survived a crocodile attack in Ethiopia. But for Drori, life’s real challenge is fighting corruption in order to stop wildlife trafficking.
The 40-year-old Israeli-born activist is the founder and director of the EAGLE Network, which stands for Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement, a coalition of NGOs in nine countries dedicated to helping governments crack down on wildlife trafficking and poaching.
It’s what he calls a “new-generation nonprofit,” one that’s focused not on education or policy but on law enforcement. And to enforce the law in central Africa, he says you first have to fight off corruption attempts left and right.
It works like this: EAGLE’s undercover investigators infiltrate criminal networks to gather evidence, then the team works with law enforcement to make arrests. From there, EAGLE’s legal team takes over to make sure the arrests lead to prosecutions and convictions. After that, the media team publicizes the convictions to deter others.
From Kenya, Drori spoke to National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch about how he ended up in Cameroon, his journey from journalist to activist, and the baby chimp that started it all.
How did you end up in Africa?
I was born in Israel with a name that gave me a destiny—Ofir is an ancient land in Africa where Queen Sheba of Ethiopia brought precious stones and gold from to King Solomon of Israel. My family name, Drori, means “my freedom.” So I dreamed of Africa from the time I was young. When I turned 18, I left on my own to travel in Africa. I got lost in the bush and was found by the Maasai tribe. I stayed with them, and it changed the course of my life.
Have you always been an activist?
For years I was an adventurer roaming through isolated parts of Africa with my horse, camel, dugout canoe, or just by foot, living with remote communities trying to learn from their culture.
I was a photojournalist writing about mainly human rights issues in the worst conflict zones in Africa. I was in the middle of an article about the sharia law and stoning of women in northern Nigeria [after 9/11]. The town that has murals of Osama Bin Laden and pink heart stickers surrounding him. When my hosts told me that they were contacted to coordinate my killing, I went to take a break in Cameroon.
It was when you were in Cameroon, reporting on the bush meat trade of gorillas and chimps, that prompted your transition from journalist to activist. How’d that come about?
Three-quarters of that article was easy to write—sharing time with the chimps and gorillas, finding how humanlike they are, seeing the meat sold openly, watching the authorities collecting bribes and taking part in the trade. For a decade, there was not a single prosecution of a wildlife crime in almost all central and West Africa.
When I was looking for the heroes of the story, I found another problem—a conservation world of waste and ineffectiveness. It focused on workshops and per diems rather than the major obstacle: enforcing the law.
Tell me about the baby chimp who changed things for you.
During my research, I encountered traffickers who tried to sell me a baby chimp. He was an orphaned survivor of the bush meat trade, sick, abused, and about to die. The wildlife authorities wouldn’t help. They asked for bribes and ended up trying to sell me another baby chimp.
I was determined to save the baby chimp. I bluffed [the traffickers], saying I work for a big, new NGO that fights corruption and would ensure they go to prison. My bluff worked. They just wanted to get rid of him. I untied him and stretched my arms out, and he climbed my body and gave me a big hug. I named him Future because this is what I wanted to give him.
After rescuing Future and becoming his father and mother, I felt obliged to stay and try to make a difference, to fight corruption and get the wildlife law enforced.
When you started your NGO, Last of the Great Apes (LAGA), what was your goal?
We set out to bring the first ever wildlife prosecution in the region. Allies were hard to come by, and enemies were added each day. The illegal wildlife trade fills many pockets. But the determined team proceeded to build an investigation department, an operations unit, a legal follow-up team, and a media department. LAGA helped bring Cameroon’s first ever wildlife crime conviction in 2003.
How did LAGA grow into the EAGLE Network?
As we got bigger and bigger traffickers behind bars, we got a string of demands for expansion. Keeping in mind my criticisms of the conservation establishment, I decided to look for different models for expansion. We decided on social franchise—replicating the LAGA concept while involving other NGOs and changing them for the better in the process. When we got to our eighth replicated country we decided to restructure it as the EAGLE Network.
Corruption attempts occur in 80 percent or more of your arrest operations and court cases, you’ve said. How do you deal with that?
We do not consider corruption as affecting our work, it is our work. Corruption is by far the most significant factor preventing law enforcement. Lobbying, capacity building, integrity trainings, and the creation of anti-corruption instruments have proven ineffective. [We need] a more active role for civil society. Activism is our weapon, African activists who fight to preserve their natural heritage and see corruption as a disease that destroys their future. These are brave young people, and their conviction is our weapon against the wildlife trade mafia and the corruption that facilitates it. They do not regard their work as a job but as a mission.
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. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.