Israeli photojournalist turned independent animal rights activist Ofir Drori (who Karin interviewed in 2008) received the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for Nature’s Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal tonight. This is one of the most coveted awards in wildlife conservation and awarding it to Drori, whose zero tolerance approach to illegal wildlife trafficking diverges from mainstream policies, sends a potent message that the community is willing to entertain a new approach to what has become a plague against Central and West Africa’s animal kingdom.
Drori walked thousands of miles through the deepest parts of the African continent following years of taking photographs in bloody war zones. He grew to love Africa during that time, and eventually, especially after receiving several death threats for writing about humanitarian issues in Nigeria, decided to hang up his camera and pursue a different line of work.
He became interested in wildlife conservation, but grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of genuine action. While exploring the chronic problem of illegal trafficking of gorilla hands, elephant tusks, and the body parts of countless other animals, the 36 year old Israeli consistently slammed up against a deeply entrenched culture of corruption.
“What I found were castles of these organizations and SUVs driving around everywhere but no answers,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “It seemed that conservation was fueling corruption.”
A well-known barrier to growth in many African countries, corruption permeates all aspects of society, from the home right up to the upper echelons of government, but Drori wasn’t ready to accept this status quo.
On an outing to a well-known trading point for great apes and other endangered species, he encountered a terrified and sick baby chimpanzee that the traffickers were attempting to sell.
“They were treating it like a rat,” he told the paper.
The image of this baby chimp haunted him, he said, so when he returned to his rented apartment, he poured his anger into an outline for an NGO called The Last Great Ape Organization Cameroon (LAGA). The following day he returned to the site where the baby chimp was being held and threatened the men that they were about to be arrested, and then essentially tricked them into becoming his informants.
He confiscated the chimp, named Future, who is expected to be re-introduced to the wild by a professional rehabilitation center, and within seven months, Drori was almost singlehandedly responsible for the first enforcement of a law long designed to protect Cameroon’s wildlife. LAGA has since catalyzed the arrests of 450 individuals in the trade in Cameroon.
“It’s thanks to people like Ofir Drori that we still have a hope of keeping vulnerable elephant and other wildlife populations thriving – and keeping a spotlight on the poaching crisis that threatens them,” WWF director general Jim Leape said.
“I applaud his bold and impactful work.”
LAGA has grown into the Central African Wildlife Law Enforcement network, which now tracks illegal wildlife trafficking in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Guinea, and Gabon; three other countries will soon be covered as well.
An extraordinarily courageous man and the enemy of some of Africa’s roughest thugs (not to mention the guys pulling in the big money), Drori accepted his medal from the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, and Jim Leape at Buckingham Palace.
Image of Ofir Drori from his Facebook page