Posts Tagged ‘bear bile’


Sunday, June 12th, 2011











 We want to create a world in which wild animals are not treated cruelly for human entertainment or fashion and at the end of the day where they remain protected where they belong, in the wild.


 Trailer from the 1966 film, Born Free


There is hardly a school child since the late1960’s, that hasn’t seen or heard about the iconic mega hit film, Born Free, the emotional true life story of Elsa, an orphaned lion cub, lovingly raised by renowned wildlife conservationists, Joy and George Adamson, before she was successfully released back into the wild. 


Elsa became a part of our culture.  She gave us our first real glimpse into the personality of a wild animal1, and we all fell in love with her. We laughed and cried with the Adamsons, as they slowly acclimated her to her future life as a wild lioness.  We knew she belonged in the wild.  Yet, our hearts were broken when she finally had to leave the family that had loved her – the family that made the excruciating but essential decision to set her free rather than condemn her to life in a zoo.  


Actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, who played the roles of Joy and George Adamson in the film, were profoundly changed by their experience as Elsa’s “parents”.    Both became dedicated wildlife conservationists and ultimately established the Born Free Foundation, now a global wildlife protection agency based in West Sussex, United Kingdom.  Their son, Will Travers, who readily acknowledges that Elsa and her legacy are a part of his DNA, is CEO of the organization.


Born Free Founder, Virginia McKenna, and CEO, Will Travers




Born Free Foundation is founded on a model of compassionate conservation, which derives directly from the McKenna-Travers experience working with the Adamsons.  It’s all about the animal as an individual, sentient being, with a distinct personality, and the now, well-documented ability to feel many emotions that mirror our own – emotions like love, fear, sadness, anger and grief. 


“The essential message of the organization today”, says Travers, “is that individual animals matter. That is the overriding lesson I learned from my parents. When we talk about conservation we must remember that populations of animals are made up of individuals that feel, individuals that have many of the same characteristics that human beings have.”


This concept of compassionate conservation is the heart and soul of the organization.  It is the jet fuel that powers the mission and underscores every campaign it supports.  It sets a clear guideline for human behavior toward wild animals: In a word, we don’t own them.  Like Elsa, they ultimately belong to the wild, where they have lives, families and destinies that are shaped by their own environment, by the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest. 


It is not for us, as humans, to take them forcibly from their natural habitat, to slaughter them for their body parts or to exploit them cruelly and unnaturally as entertainment in zoos or circuses.  As it is our responsibility to keep animals safe from human intervention in the wild, it must be our responsibility to make sure that wild animals in captivity are treated as humanely as possible. 



Lonely monkey kept as a pet


The Born Free mission, then, is driven by the tenet that wild animals belong in the wild, and not in zoos, circuses or in private homes.  To this end, it works to advocate at the policy level for legislation that will keep wild animals of all species safe in the wild, to relieve the suffering of wild animals in captivity, to rescue and provide sanctuary for individual animals, and to assist indigenous populations with strategies that allow them to live in harmony with the wild animals in their communities.  



Born Free USA was created in 2002, by Travers’ friend and colleague, Adam Roberts, to bring the Born Free message of “compassionate conservation” to the United States.  From his Washington D.C. office, Roberts, now Executive Vice President, works to promote and raise funds for the animal protection programs that are both geographically and culturally more specific to the United States, that drive the mission of the organization.  Those programs include campaigns on behalf of animals in zoos and circuses, against the trapping and fur trade, wildlife trafficking in bear gall bladders and lion parts, and to prohibit the keeping of exotic animals as “pets”.  


Action Now+Network talked with Travers and Roberts about the Born Free USA programs, and about their vision for the future of compassionate conservation of wildlife, here and abroad.

Adam, how did you come to Born Free USA?

Adam: Well, Will and I had met back in about 1993 working on wildlife trade issues.  Will was with Born Free Foundation and I was with another organization here in Washington, DC.   We quickly became friends and trusted colleagues, and we worked very closely together to stop the trade in elephant ivory and tiger bone and rhino horn and bear gall bladders – some of the big international wildlife trade issues. 


Over the next 5 years or so we began to talk about the need for a "Born Free" here in America.  We felt that there weren’t enough animal protection organizations doing the necessary work to build compassionate conservation into the American psyche. 


It’s not just about conserving animals based on numbers or just about animal rights.  We felt there needed to be a blending of the issues to create a focus on the fact that individual animals matter as well as concern for the species as a whole.  We really wanted to bring that "Born Free" message to the American public.

So, in 2002 I set up "Born Free USA" for Will, as a volunteer, just because we were friends and I really believed in the mission and the message.  In 2005 I came on full-time, "Born Free USA" was properly staffed and ready to go, and  we've been driving it forward ever since. 


 Bear pen in front yard of a home


In 2007 we actually merged with another organization, the Animal Protection Institute, headquartered in Sacramento.


How do the U.S. and the U.K. offices work together?

Adam: The U.S. and the U.K. offices are incredibly compatible in terms of mission.  We both work on animals in entertainment whether it's zoos or circuses, we both work on wildlife trade issues such as the ones I mentioned earlier, but there are some issues that we deal with in America that are more prominent here than in Europe. 



Adam: The American black bear is a species that's found here, so that's something that distinguishes us from the UK. The trade in bear gall bladders is a signature campaign of ours – we’re trying to stop people from poaching American bears and then cutting open their abdomens and taking the gall bladders.




The horror of the trapping/fur trade



We also have a major campaign against the use of steel-jaw leg hold traps to catch fur bearing animals, like raccoons or foxes.  These are horrible, barbaric, bone-crushing traps. I've been in this business for twenty years and it's incredibly hard to stop. That's why it's so important that "Born Free" exists with the strong presence it has.




Another signature campaign is on wild animals used in zoos and circuses. How do you operate and what do you do?  What is your message?

 Adam: Well fundamentally, the message is that wild animals are not here to entertain us and that they shouldn't be kept captive for human amusement.  That includes animals that are both in zoos and circuses.  We’re working hard to make sure these animals are not subjected to these exploitive situations and that while they are held in captivity, they, at least, receive the most humane care possible. 


Of course, in some situations such as elephants in zoos, we don’t believe it’s possible, but we work to make sure that the smaller roadside zoos, that are clearly not meeting the welfare needs of the animals, are shut down as a priority.

We also work with legislators at the local, state and the federal level to enact laws that protect animals from various forms of captive cruelty.






Were you part of the lawsuit that was brought against Ringling Brothers?

Adam:  Yes, we were.  The Animal Protection Institute had joined that lawsuit so when we merged with them we took ownership of it.

Unfortunately, that lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality.  Are there plans to resurrect it, in any way?

Adam: Yes, this case was brought against Ringling Brothers Circus under the Endangered Species Act for violating the law with respect to the mistreatment of captive elephants. But we have appealed that and we're hoping this year the Appeals Court will resolve the matter for us.


What we're really asking for, more than anything else, is that there is a ruling on the merits of the case. 


We presented a body of evidence to show how cruel these practices are, and we actually had the Chairman of the Ringling Brothers parent company admit that elephants are hit with bull hooks, but there was never a determination about whether or not that was a legal violation.  That’s really what we're looking for.  We want the judge to decide on the merits of the case, which in our estimation concludes that the way these animals are treated in circuses is, in fact, not only cruel, but a violation of the law.


Will: Just to expand on this point, we also want to emphasize the broader point that it is important for the law to be good in the first place, to be strong and effectively applied. 


There are thousands of zoos, menageries and dreadful roadside facilities that have a USDA license, so this tells us that the standards are woefully low.  


We face exactly the same situation in Europe where we have a "European Zoos Directive" which applies to all 4,000 zoos across the European Union.   We are in the process of concluding a survey of two hundred zoos across 20 of the different member States, including the UK, France, Spain, etc. of the European Union and the evidence that we're turning up is that, so far, not one single country is applying the legislation effectively.


Hasn’t the U.K. decided to ban the use of elephants in circuses?

Will:  I wish that were the case, but the jury is still out.  We're very hopeful that the U.K. government, after years and years of persistant and highly-principled lobbying by many groups including "Born Free", RSPCA (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and others, that the UK government would come to that conclusion. 

In fact, at the beginning of 2010, the previous administration sent out a consultation (survey) to the public asking them for their views.  Over 10,000 people responded, which for the UK is a lot of people – 94.6% favored ending the use of wild animals in circuses.  So basically five out of one hundred (5%) people want animals to be in the circuses and 95 out of 100 (95%) say no.  The current administration describes itself as ‘listening government’ so I certainly hope they're listening to that message.


Elephant forced to learn massage


We only have four circuses in the country with wild animals now.  There are about forty wild animals in those circuses and I've been to some shows in the last twelve months where in the 700 and 800 seat arenas there were maybe ninety people.  Wild animal circuses are no longer a commercially viable operation.  They are running on empty.  The tank is out of gas and the writing's on the wall.  They need to wrap it up so we can all move on to a more humane future. 


Adam, you probably have a perspective on where the American public is at with animal zoos and circuses in the U.S.

Adam: I think it's a tough one here simply because of the number of people in the country and the long history that we have with both zoos and circuses.  I think for us there is definitely a public policy and legislative component to it all. 


We have to educate lawmakers that circuses don't have to have wild animals.  We have model legislation available for all legislators to use, whether they want to establish a local city ordinance or a statewide law that either prohibits the use of wild animals in circuses or restricts the use of wild animals in circuses. 



Bears kept in tiny facility without any natural stimulation


I think the way we need to address this is with young people– showing them that zoos and circuses do not represent entertainment based on real values, on real conservation.  (These facilities are not where wild animals should be kept. It’s all about teaching children that we have to have a healthy respect for wild life and protect them where they live.


Do you have programs that reach out to the schools? 

Adam:  Yes, we're increasingly trying to get our message out into schools by dealing directly with teachers and providing them materials free of chargeWe do have that kind of outreach.


Will:  Yes.  If children aren’t exposed to the true stories about how animals really live in the wild and why we need to conserve species and their natural habitats, then they actually are only exposed to one dimension of the story and they have nothing to compare it to.  They may well believe, in all innocence, that what they are looking at in a zoo or circus is ok.   And it isn't ok.  The public sees a person of authority and of professional learning, with perhaps  a degree or Ph.D., that may run a zoo, and they wonder how this can be so wrong




Will: And I'll give you an example of how we got our priorities very confused.  


I work a lot with the Kenya Wildlife Service in Kenya.  It's the statutory body responsible for Kenya's wildlife across the whole country, particularly in all the protected areas like the National Parks and Reserves and they're responsible for about six million acres.  They have 4,000 individual staff in the organization.  In those protected areas there are around 35,000 wild elephants, maybe 1,000 wild rhino, maybe 2,000 wild lions and, of course, all the other species, the antelopes, giraffes and the hippos and everything else – all the birds and all the bugs and all the trees.  They're' responsible for all of that.   They carry out their function every year for a budget of around 45 million U.S. dollars.


The Los Angeles Zoo has just built a new elephant enclosure.  It's about 7 acres. To the best of my knowledge it has four elephants in it.  And the elephants share about 3.8 of those acres and the cost of building that new enclosure was about 42 million dollars.


.. I just look at that situation and I think "my goodness, what could we do for the protection of elephants, and in fact for the protection and conservation of so many species if that kind of money was available to my friends in Kenya, or in Mali, or Sierra Leone, or in the 20 different African countries we work in?  What could we do with a fraction of that kind of money?”


We have our priorities wrong and it isn't always about building some high-tech concrete monstrosity in the middle of a downtown area of a major urban center in the U.K. or in the U.S.A.  That isn't necessarily helping animals or educating people. We have to think differently and think smarter.


But there are ways in which we do occasionally work together with zoos, and exotic pets is one of those examples.



Can you describe your program that advocates against keeping exotic pets?

Adam:  We have a huge campaign to stop the trade in exotic animals as pets.  People who keep tigers in their backyards or primates as pets is not something that's exclusive to the United States, but it is much more prominent here.


There are some zoos and zoo industry representatives that have supported us in that effort.  They are taking a leadership role because from their perspective, they don't think wild animals should be in private hands.  They feel that a zoo is fine– and we can agree to disagree on that– but we are united in our perspective that wild animals don't belong with any member of the general public that thinks they're ‘cute’ or ‘cuddly’. 

The issue of exotic pets raises a whole host of problems, the most significant of which, from our perspective, is the animal welfare problem. 


Oftentimes, these animals are hurt, they're harmed, they're manipulated, they're caged, they're treated very badly in order to be kept in captivity. Whether it's cutting off nails or filing down teeth or chaining animals, most are treated cruelly in order to keep them in captive conditions. 


But beyond that there is a very serious risk to people because these animals are wild and can hurt people if they come in contact with them – which they do. 


And then there's also a risk of invasive species being released. For example, in Florida, you have people that keep large snakes.  When they get so big that the owners can’t keep them anymore, they release them into the Everglades where these animals establish viable wild populations and compete for habitat with indigenous wildlife. 


So there's really a spectrum of issues, from animal welfare to human welfare to the welfare of native wildlife.  This is something that we at Born Free USA  are working very hard to change.


This is really a signature campaign of ours. We try and educate the public about the hazards of keeping exotic animals as pets.  We’re also working very hard to change the laws to make it more difficult, if not impossible for certain species to be kept.


We had success back in 2003, when the US congress passed legislation called the Captive Wildlife Safety Act which prohibits the interstate transportation of big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, or hybrids thereof, if they are intended to be kept as pets.  


I know for a fact that that law works to deter people from trading these animals.  We've had sanctuaries that keep big cats tell us that after that law was passed the number of animals needing their rescue declined significantly. 

Now we're working to add non-human primates to that list of prohibited species that can be moved between states for personal ownership as pets, because we know that primates don’t make good pets. 

 “Born Free” knows all too well the hazards of the exotic pet trade, especially with respect to non-human primates because we have our own sanctuary for about 500 non-human primates down in Texas.   A number of those animals have come to us because they were unwanted pets, owned by a person who, for whatever reason, was no longer able to keep them.  And when they have no place to go, these animals often end up on our doorstep.  


It’s very hard for us. Animals come to us not just coming to us from people’s homes but from biomedical research laboratories or roadside zoos and other places.  At the end of the day, we take these animals in and support them whenever possible. We have to rely on the goodwill from folks around the country to make donations and support their ongoing care but we have to take the animals in because the alternatives are horrendous – a tragic life in a substandard facility or a premature and unnecessary death. We prefer to give these animals a peaceful retirement and so we take them in. 


We did pass the bill to add primates to that list of species protected from the pet trade a couple of years ago.  Unfortunately, it was held up in the U.S. Senate, and now we have to start over again. But we think that we'll succeed, ultimately, in getting that legislation passed. 



Can you talk about your Primate Sanctuary?

Adam: We have the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary, which is outside of San Antonio Texas and we've got 500 animals there, including vervet monkeys, macaques, and baboons that live on nearly 200 acres so they have great space – including a 50 acre enclosure where many of them can actually swim and jump in ponds and climb trees and really act like monkeys should. 




There is an organization with which we're affiliated called the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries – GFAS We started it in 2007 to accredit sanctuaries based on a set of strict operational and humane care standards.  


This accreditation is important so that people will know the difference between a sanctuary that has met standards and is doing good work, as opposed to someone who is breeding tigers in his backyard, and calling himself a sanctuary. We want to provide the gold standard for what a sanctuary should look like.



The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary, are just two of the examples of sanctuaries that really can guarantee a significant quality of life.


Will: Just to add to what Adam said, and he told the story extremely well. There is one other important point.  Unless the legislation is changed, we will always be handling the fallout of a situation that’s out of control.  And we can’t, and the sanctuaries can’t. Not even the GFAS accredited sanctuaries can forever accommodate and take in animals while the government stands idly by and takes no action against the individuals who keep these animals – the individuals who keep bears, lions, tigers, primates or chimpanzees as pets.   Then, if anything goes wrong, the humane movement has to scurry around and pick up the pieces. 


The dynamic has to change, and there has to be responsible legislation, properly enforced so that maybe, in my lifetime and hopefully in Adam's lifetime, we’ll see an end to the keeping of exotic animals as pets and also, a winding down for the need for sanctuaries.


What are the avenues for the public to get involved?

Adam:  We have an Action Alert Network that people can sign up for through our website where they can get frequent emails from us.  These alerts will let them know what they can do on a national level, or opportunities for involvement at the local level, in their own town.  It might be something like writing to a restaurant to get them to stop selling lion meat, or writing to their United States Senators about a piece of legislation on exotic pets.


There is a lot of information about this on our website.



Let’s talk about the cartels – wildlife trafficking, and slaughtering animals for their parts.   There is an enormous black market that has ballooned out of control.  

How has Born Free been advocating against wildlife trafficking?

Adam:  We’re heavily involved in the global treaty that governs the international movement of wild animals.  It’s called "CITES" the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora


This is a convention that was signed in Washington, D.C. in 1973 and now has more than 170 countries that participate.  It regulates trade in certain species internationally so that endangered species can be protected and certain animals and animal parts cannot be traded commercially.  


There are all kinds of regulations that govern trade – not only trade in elephant ivory, but trade in elephant hair, elephant leather, — all parts of the elephant are covered by the Treaty.  It also bans trade in tiger bones and tiger parts, internationally.


There's also an international ban on the trade in whale meat.  So CITES has some pretty tremendous opportunities to provide animal protection but at the same time individual nations need to adopt stronger domestic measures to implement CITES, or to actually expand on CITES.  For the US, that's the Endangered Species Act




Our Endangered Species Act not only implements the Convention, but also provides a greater level of protection for some species that are listed under it.  And that's why we petitioned the US Department of Interior to place the African lion on the endangered species list as an endangered species, and thereby provide an additional layer of protection. 



The U.S. is the #1 importer of lion parts



If we succeed in placing them on the endangered species list here, the US will no longer be an open market for lion parts.   That’s incredibly important because, according to the data, the US is now the biggest international consumer of lion parts.


Adam:  Yes — the U.S. is the biggest consumer of lion parts, both as trophies from trophy hunts, but also for commercial products.  And what we've seen is a tremendous decline in the population of African lions.  Since 1980, the population of African lions have been cut in half, from about 76,000 to between roughly 40,000 and a devastating 23,000 today.  At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of lion parts being imported into America.  In fact there were twice as many lion parts commercially imported into this country in 2008 as there were in 1999. 

 What we’re saying is that it isn’t sustainable, and the only solution right now is to put the lion on the Endangered Species Act and to stop this hemorrhaging of lions coming out of Africa at a pace of 600 trophies a year.


Will:  This is also exemplified in the ivory trade.


The original international ban on the trade of ivory came in 1989 and I was actually at the CITES meeting in Switzerland where that decision was made.  In the four or five years immediately after the ban it seemed that the number of elephants being poached was going down, that the price of ivory on the black market (because it was all illegal) was going down, way down to maybe $10 a kilo.  So, even the poor poacher manipulated by a cartel would not risk his or her life if they were going to make $10, $20, $30– it just wasn't worth the risk. 


Unfortunately since the mid 1990s, to the present day, there's been an erosion of that ban. There have been a number of so-called one-off sales of significant amounts of ivory – like the recent sale of 100 tons of ivory from stockpiles from certain countries – and the approval of Japan and China as favored trading nations for ivory.


The British government actually wrote me about the approval of China as an approved trading nation for ivory.  They said "well the reason we think it's a good idea is because we think it'll meet the demand.  And if we can meet the demand, there will be less poaching, and there will be less animal trade.  We will satiate the market.  It will satisfy the buyers." 


And the truth is that it's going in exactly in the opposite direction.  The level of poaching is at devastatingly high levels right now.  The amount of ivory that's being seized is huge.  The price of illegal ivory is now running at around $1500 U.S. per kilo.  That’s about $700 a pound. African poachers are very willing to risk their lives if they think that they can get $700 for just a pound of raw ivory. 


That’s why we need to take responsibility.  Governments need to take responsibility.  If the US is the biggest single importer of lion trophies, the US has a responsibility to address that issue.  If the UK government approved China for a trading nation of the ivory, the UK needs to take responsibility for the fact that it made that decision. 


And we as consumers, we also have responsibilities.  We choose what we buy and therefore we influence what is sold.


Adam:  And there's one other aspect of how we can fight these black markets.  We can do this not only through legislation and not only through international Treaties, but through public pressure as well.  Because if people stop buying these products, when people stop buying ivory, the price goes down, poaching decreases and elephants’ lives are saved 




We’re also heavily involved in supporting wildlife law enforcement on the ground, in the country where the wildlife lives.  That’s incredibly important because the poachers and the profiteers in these wildlife products are backed by incredibly powerful and well-funded people who can give them all of the resources they need. 


They are not only paid to kill wild animals and get the parts and export them out of the country for all they're worth, but they're also putting people's lives on the line.  The park rangers who live with wildlife and have to protect the wildlife can't compete because they're under-funded. So you have very small wildlife departments without vehicles, fuel, equipment, training – they even have a hard time raising the funds to get a computer for their office so they can track poaching incidents.


These are things we take for granted, but the people on the ground who are protecting wild animals from the poachers really need our support.  And so we try and help in any way we can, whether it's equipping these wildlife departments with laptops or funding de-snaring operations to go out in Kenya.  We have teams operating in Kenya that actually remove wire snares that have been set by poachers trying to catch wild animals. 


So these are all the different ways that we are actually on the ground in country where, together with our supporters, we try and stop the poaching before it happens.  Or at the very least, we support the people that can apprehend the poachers and make sure they're prosecuted fully.


What makes Born Free USA different than other animal protection organizations out there?  What make your operation unique?

Adam:  We focus very much on protecting wildlife and protecting wild animals in captivity.  And while we care very much about animals in biomedical research laboratories or factory farms, we appreciate that there are some great groups out there with the specific expertise and abilities to deal with those issues, so that we can really streamline our efforts and craft our mission to focus on protecting the greatest number of animals that fall into the category of wildlife protection. 

In addition, we really do try and focus on individual animals – it's not just some philosophical or a policy exercise.  We’re trying to stop people buying primates as ‘pets’, but at the same time we want to make sure that we can actually protect and care for any primates that are confiscated from the pet trade.  


We want to bring the concept of Compassionate Conservation, the protection of both individuals and species, to everything we do. I think we have a real grasp on the interplay between sound science, strong policy and direct animal care than some other organizations might not have.


What are the most important things that you want the public to know about Born Free?

Adam:  I would say that we can't do this without the public support and so, obviously, working in all of the areas we're involved in is great but if we don’t have public support, we won’t be able to do this work anymore. So the more people that learn about what we're doing and how we're doing it and are willing to embrace our vision, embrace our mission, the more work we can do for animals.


Second, that we’re an international operation.  We not just in Washington and in California but all across the country, in Canada, and at our primate sanctuary in Texas, and indeed everywhere in the world where wild animals are in peril.


Will:  I would say the other thing is that there are lots of serious issues, huge issues, lots of terrible things that go on with animals, but we also like to have a bit of fun when we do things as well. 


For example, this September, we are going to be holding a fashion show down in California in the Los Angeles area.


It’s all fur-free fashion, with different young designers around the country participating.   This is a runway event, and it’s going to be great!  We'll have a whole host of people there but one of the judges who'll be helping us choose the winners is Elizabeth Emmanuel who is a friend of mine – she designed Princess Diana's wedding gown years ago!



What is your ultimate vision for Born Free?

Adam:  Well, the vision is really to keep wildlife in the wild.  We want to create a world in which wild animals are not treated cruelly for human entertainment or fashion and at the end of the day where they remain protected where they belong, in the wild.


Will:  I was asked recently, by somebody who was interviewing me, "Don't you just get disheartened?  Don't you kind of look at the huge mountain of issues and become discouraged and just kind of want to give up?" 


And I think the answer to that is that is it goes back to the individual.  If we can help reduce the suffering of one animal  – a primate by giving him a home in our Sanctuary,  or if we can save one elephant’s life from poachers by supporting the law enforcement agency, or if we can change the way that an animal is being kept in a circus or a zoo, or if we can persuade one person not to buy an exotic animal as a pet,  or one legislator to take up our cause and make a difference in their state, we will have accomplished part of our goal. 


Every single one of those battles is winnable and when you win it gives you the energy; it puts fuel in the tank for the next battle. Adam's been doing it for 20 years, I've been doing it for 27 years and we still have the stomach for the fight. I hope compassionate people everywhere will join us!




Visit the Born Free USA Website

Visit the Born Free website



Adam Roberts, Executive Vice Presdient

Born Free USA 

1. See also the story of Christian the Lion, which enjoyed a viral renaissance on You-Tube a few years ago: The film can be purchased from the Born Free Foundation.


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Wednesday, May 4th, 2011














 “On a personal level, one of my missions is to educate people – to try to reduce demand (for animal parts) by helping the public to know that poaching exists.  



QUESTION: What do the seemingly disparate topics of a wildlife forensics lab, the horrific gorilla bush meat trade, elephant trauma and psychology, and the butterfly black market share in common? 

ANSWER: These are only a few of the many subjects that have been illuminated by Dr. Laurel Neme, gifted environmental journalist and all around Renaissance woman, who aims to translate the current plight of our wildlife and their habitats from a niche science into a very accessible public conversation. 

Neme’s sterling academic credentials (a Master’s degree from University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Princeton University) led her to an early career as an international consultant in natural resource management, working for the U.S. Treasury Department, World Bank, USAID, and a host of influential NGOs with conservation missions.  

 But wildlife is where her heart is, and the increasing decimation of their numbers due to trafficking cartels has given rise to a passion that has fueled her commitment to raise the public’s awareness of this tragedy. 



In fact, the horror of wildlife trafficking and its devastating impact on the animals and the environment, is the dirty secret of much of our retail life; it cuts a wide swath across the disciplines of the Chinese medicine, the exotic food, jewelry, art, pet and clothing worlds.  Few of us have escaped the cache of owning or eating exotic goods, and tragically, most of us are completely oblivious as to the deadly consequences. 

Neme’s goal first, is to bring attention to how intimately we are connected to our wildlife and the ecosystems they support, and second, to help us understand our own capacity to change the calculus of the destructive forces that are eroding our planet at an alarming rate. 

 ABC NIGHTLINE: A short introduction to wildlife trafficking


Neme’s charisma – her infectious laugh and embracing personality have undoubtedly contributed to her success.   In talking with her and in reviewing her work, it occurred to this writer more than once, that she just might be wildlife’s female counterpart to Indiana Jones.   She is apparently fearless and has boundless energy: In her own words, she has “has camped in the Kalahari, investigated walrus carcasses on Alaska's Bering Sea beaches, and gotten lost in the Amazon jungle with the Brazilian Federal Police–all in pursuit of knowledge and a better story.”  

And that’s only the beginning. 

In her highly acclaimed book published in 2009,  Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, Neme has written what has been called a wildlife CSI crime investigation, giving us a glimpse behind the closed doors at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forensics lab – following the dedicated agents in their painstaking examination of the mutilated corpses and seized parts of trafficked animals, in their efforts to identify the poachers of endangered species.   See the photo gallery on



Animal Investigators

With a Foreword by Richard Leakey


In between writing, Neme hosts a popular weekly radio show, The Wildlife, in which she interviews all manner of wildlife scientists and experts on subjects, ranging from wildlife law enforcement, to the dark side of new species discovery, to elephant poaching in Chad, to the lucrative and dangerous black market in butterflies.  And these are only a few of the more than seventy topics she has covered since she started the show in November 2009.

Neme is also a Fellow at the University of Vermont’s Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security, and she has an active speaking schedule which takes her to museums and environmental conferences all over the country.   Finally, she has recently signed on as a correspondent with Jeff Corwin’s new wildlife conservation web portal, Jeff Corwin Connect.




Wolf carcasses to be examined in the forensics lab


Action Now+Network recently spoke with Dr. Neme about her life, her love for wildlife and the natural world, and about her ultimate goal:  to bring the public into the conversation about the impact of wildlife trafficking, on  vital ecosystems, and ultimately on the planet.   


A.N.N.: You started out your professional life with degrees in Political Science and Public Policy from University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in International and Public Affairs from Princeton University.  From there, your niche has been environmental and wildlife policy and natural resource management. 

Is this what you thought you wanted to do when you completed your doctorate?   What led you down this path — how did you get interested in this field?

I’ve always loved animals, but in college, I got away from that a little bit – got more into the policy side of things and into sustainable development and how people interact with the environment.  However, I have been consistently drawn to the way people interact with wildlife –and I got more engaged in that field as I got more deeply involved.

A.N.N.: In your studies and in your professional life, how do you sense that people engage with wildlife – as a part of the environment or something separate, or as something that they can own? 

Here in the States, especially in the urban areas, you get separated and divorced from your natural landscape.  Once of the reasons I live in Vermont is because I don’t feel divorced –we purposely moved here because our environment is embedded into our subconscious – it is part of how people engage in their daily life. 

In most places around the (developing) world, the immediate environment is not something separate – you rely on animals, they rely on you.  Sometimes they are a big nuisance – when elephants destroy the crop, then what do you do?  You get rid of the problem because it is your livelihood – your survival.  But there are alternative ways, and there have been so many great success stories about how you can take away the conflict—and create win-win situations where the animals can still survive and thrive and so can the people.


A.N.N.: You have a regular radio show called The Wildlife –can you tell me a little about it, how you got started with it. 

I got into it because after I wrote my book, Animal Investigators, I was doing a lot of publicity, including on some great programs such as NPR’s Science Friday and ABC News Nightline – and they did a great job, but the one thing that was missing is that they were still short pieces, without a lot of detail.  And I had the idea of being able to get the story behind the story and being able to talk in depth without the sound bites, and being able to talk about different scientific discoveries and issues.  The show is all related to wildlife and animals and investigations – sometimes scientific investigations and sometimes criminal investigations.


A.N.N.: How do you select your guests and your topics for this show?

I choose the guests:  I do a lot of reading,  keep my hand on the pulse of a lot of issues, and some things just strike my fancy – sometimes its popular, like Chris Palmers book,  Shooting in the Wild — it was getting a lot of attention, and I wanted to explore the issues with him.  Other times, the topic may be obscure but important, like research on porcupine farming in Vietnam, which I see as having broader implication – in this case for policies related to the idea that commercial farming of wildlife is a viable strategy to reduce poaching in the wild.  This study showed it didn’t work. 

I’m always interested in wildlife stories – and the wildlife trade and trafficking doesn’t get a lot of attention, so this was my way of focusing on those stories – but if you focus on the stories (about the trafficking) without getting an appreciation of the species too, it gets depressing and people feel disempowered.  My goal is to empower people, and that’s why I don’t focus exclusively on wildlife trafficking. 

So some of the topics I’ve had, such as Lorises, have a big trafficking component but I also focus on the biology – how strange and how interesting these prosimians are.


A.N.N.: What exactly are Lorises?


A Slow Loris

Lorises are a kind of primate that are found in southeast Asia.   One of the reasons I got interested in Lorises was that I had been working on this story for Nightline – they were interested in doing a story related to my book, Animal Investigators, on the wildlife forensics lab, and I had been looking around for cases where good video was available.  A lot of times, video is not available or not releasable.  This was a case that involved a Hmong refugee woman from Laos living in Minnesota who had imported thousands of wildlife parts for traditional medicine.  Agents had gone undercover and had shown the sales of different animals.  This case was interesting because it showed how one person could have a huge impact, and it also showed the diversity of species that the forensics lab had to identify.

This was especially Interesting because people think of traditional medicine as being Chinese, but it is actually prevalent across Asia in a lot of cultures, using some of the species like salamanders and Lorises,  that we had never known about in the international trade in traditional medicine.

Not much was known about traditional medicine in Laos – this case was one that identified all the species used in Laos.  As part of her sentence, this woman was required to provide info as to what they used these animals for.  However, ….she never gave up much information about that.

So – back to how I find interviewees for my show…

Eventually, I saw an article about some innovative research on the use of lorises in traditional medicine in Laos, which, of course, struck a nerve with me.  I contacted and interviewed the researcher, a woman from London, Anna Kekaris, who was an expert who also looks at the biology of the species. 

People don’t realize that wildlife trafficking is even an issue.  It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book – before I stumbled upon it (the issue of wildlife trafficking) by talking to a ranger in Kenya who had trained at the lab, most people, including me, didn’t even know that this exists.

That episode has been used to provide info to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for future cases, and also at universities – I know professor here at University of Vermont has assigned it in anthropology case – which shows traditional use of wildlife.


A.N.N.: The idea of your radio show is brilliant.  It lets you straddle academic subject areas with a more popular presentation of the material.  You have the ability to reach a more diverse public. 

Well, another reason I started this show is that it gives me an excuse to investigate interesting subjects. It’s enjoyable –and it gives me control over the product.  I might still do an article related to the subject, but I don’t have to – I already have a deliverable.


A.N.N.:  I want to talk about your book, Animal Investigators, which is about the forensics lab operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Ashland, Oregon.  This is the only dedicated wildlife crime lab (in the world); it is also a lab available to CITES member countries (via a Memorandum of Understanding). 

This book is a really compelling account of how the lab works with the wildlife offices to determine cause of death of the various animals –whether they were natural or illegal – for the purpose of finding and prosecuting the traffickers. 

Yes, this is the only dedicated wildlife crime lab in the world.  There are other wildlife forensics labs but they are attached to a human forensic lab or another entity.  This is the only dedicated wildlife lab.


A.N.N.: What is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all about?  How does it operate?  What is it’s role?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is part of the US Department of Interior.  Its Office of Law Enforcement is the place that focuses on investigating wildlife crimes and enforcing our wildlife protection laws, like the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act.   The agents are very dedicated.  I do think they are hampered by a lack of funding and a lack of staff.  You compare the numbers of the DEA or the FBI to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement and you’re talking 5000 DEA agents and 200 U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and of those 200 maybe 50 are in management and aren’t working in the field anymore.  There aren’t a whole lot of agents to police the country. 

(The wildlife forensics lab) is vitally important because the laws are such that even if you have a dead wildlife product, it may or may not be illegal –it depends on what species it is.  If the product is protected, then a crime has been committed.  But if not, then it’s not illegal, even if the victim (the animal) has been turned into a purse.

On the one hand they trying to do more with less, and collaborate more, but there has also been a shift within U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where the older guard – and this is true of all federal law enforcement agents – they are forced to retire at 57 – so there are people retiring and not being replaced because of budget constraints.   A new class just completed training in December will bring the number up to 200, but that’s a lot of “newbies” – and working wildlife cases is very dangerous because they have to be prepared to face people with guns out in remote areas, without backup.     So when you start thinking about it, you have to pick and choose the cases you work on.  They are doing a lot, but there is also a limit. 


Bear bile products


The other area that’s doing great work and often gets discounted, is the training done by regional law enforcement networks like the South Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), and the work they are doing about wildlife trafficking when the wildlife is crossing borders.   (In the same vein,) I did an interview with Suwanna Gauntlett, (CEO) of Wildlife Alliance ,  and was talking with her about the difference she is making. When wildlife crosses borders, you can lose them.  But with these networks, you can pass the tracking on to the next guys. 

We’re also seeing INTERPOL making huge busts on wildlife traffickers – INTERPOL doesn’t run the operation, they coordinate different law enforcement agencies.   One of their huge busts (called Operation TRAM) was related to trafficking traditional medicines with illegal wildlife products.  They seized $13 million worth of medicines with illegal ingredients like tiger, bear and rhino and the operation involved 18 countries across 5 continents.  INTERPOL was involved in another huge bust related to tigers – this job involved six tiger range states and twenty-five individual arrests.  So we’re starting to see a shift – trying to make more with what we’ve got. 


 Ivory carvings from walrus tusks


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a model for the rest of the world – and they are amazing.  They’re working really important cases – they’re not catching everything but are doing what they can with what they have.


A.N.N.: One thing I learned from your book is that forensics is an exquisitely painstaking science.  It involves taking the parts, analyzing them, then, waiting for the results, which takes a lot of time.  There is a protocol: You need to understand the solutions that are used, make sure everything is analyzed in exactly the right way so that the results aren’t invalidated.  It seems like one lab could barely scratch the surface.  What do we need to do to get additional labs?

People don’t realize that wildlife trafficking is even an issue.  It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book – before I stumbled upon the use of forensics to stop wildlife crimes issue by talking to a ranger in Kenya who had trained at the lab, most people, including me, didn’t even realize that wildlife trafficking was so prevalent.

It is vitally important because the laws are such that even if you have a dead wildlife product, it may or may not be illegal –it depends on what species it is.  If the product is protected, then a crime has been committed.  But if not, then it’s not illegal, even if the victim (the animal) has been turned into a purse.

A.N.N.: You have a fascinating examination of the forensics –on what it takes to get to the point where the lab can do the analysis – in this book you talk about the walruses, ruby macaws, and black bears, captured and tortured, essentially for their bile: the chapter on bear bile particularly moved me – as the cruelty involved in obtaining this bile boggles the imagination.

You described that in your book, with the bear bile, when the samples turned out to be pig instead of bear, and the trafficker got off “scott free”.

That’s not to say that he wasn’t actually trafficking bear bile – and that’s the rub — the science itself is neutral.  If it’s not neutral then you question the results, because there are questions of bias. 

This is why a dedicated wildlife crime lab is so important in my mind – because you are able to develop the scientific protocol and do the research necessary to find identifying characteristics of a product and a species, and the complicating factor is that there sometimes is no identifying characteristic.  So you couldn’t tell a chest feather of an eagle from that of a turkey.  But oftentimes there is an identifying characteristic – and the methodology for finding that identifying characteristic varies.  It can be chemistry, morphology, or genetic.


Measuring seized bear claws in the lab


Using the example of bear gall bladders, they can be fresh frozen, dried, crystallized, or they can be used as an ointment – so you need a characteristic that that says its bear in all of those forms to be scientifically valid.  For bear bile, the identifying characteristic is unique levels of three bile acids.  It’s important to realize that the identifying characteristic may vary depending on the part and the species.  It is extremely complicated, it takes time and innovative thinking.  

Once the scientists have developed the protocol and it’s been scientifically accepted then anyone can run the analysis.  In other words, once a diagnostic characteristic is proven and a methodology for finding it is established, it can be used by other forensic labs.

It seems to me that the public has to be engaged on two different levels:  first,  they have to understand from a moral perspective that it is a terrible thing to cause such pain and injury to an animal – and second, the viewers/listeners should be empowered, to feel that they can do something. 


A.N.N.: Tell me about your gig with Jeff Corwin Connect.  He is an icon in the field, his name is identified with Animal Planet and wildlife adventures.

 I’ve always admired Jeff Corwin – professionally, in my mind, he’s stood apart.   I’ve been impressed because he takes complex issues and makes them funny, yet he still provides a ton of information.  He has a very enjoyable way that I have felt is not exploitive.   He’s a wildlife biologist – he has a Masters degree, he has tons of field experience, has a great way of making the information accessible and entertaining to everybody.  The issue is so serious, so tragic, it’s easy to throw up your hands and feel you can’t do anything. 

The skill that Jeff Corwin has is to provide the facts and to make the issues accessible, popular, sexy.  


A.N.N.: Is there a way to make this information on trafficking plain and simple for the public, so they can clearly understand the consequences of purchasing these items – so that every time they buy something with rhino horn in it, or bear bile –that they understand that each purchase means first, the torture and horrific death of an innocent animal – and second, an irreversible impact on the ecosystem.

L.N.: In terms of reaching the public, there are a couple of issues that are important:  it seems to me that the public has to be engaged on two different levels:  first, they have to understand the impact of their actions, from pain and injury to an animal to the effect on the ecosystem.  Second,  the viewers/listeners should be empowered, to feel that they can do something. 

The issue is about saving the species and being a part of saving the environment, and preserving the ecosystem, and not about laying all this guilt on the listeners.


A.N.N.: We are all stewards of this plant, we need to pass this information to our children and grandchildren, so that our planet can stay healthy – if one species goes, it throws the entire ecosystem off kilter – you were talking about this as well, in your book, about the Macaws.  And I think that people don’t normally think about this, that everything has an effect, we are all connected to the wildlife, to the environment.

In this context, we are all responsible.  Celebrities, in particular, have a responsibility – when you see (reality TV stars like) the Kardashians, for example, filmed getting out of a car wearing fur, or (American idol contestant Adam) Lambert wearing python boots – there is a great opportunity to educate people..Image becomes very important.


A.N.N.: What about the poaching cartels?  Is there anything the public can do about them?

When I started writing this book:  I’m often asked when I give presentations, “what surprised you most.” 

I think the thing that surprises me most is how pervasive (wildlife trafficking) it is–what’s interesting is that I, who am fairly knowledgeable about it, was still shocked to learn how pervasive it is.   I had this image – do you remember in 1989 when the international ban of commercial trade of ivory was announced – Richard Leakey (famed anthropologist and former Director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service) had been the person behind all this – burning this pile of ivory.  To me that was an amazing symbol –He burned this pile of ivory –he was burning away millions of dollars because he believed that that was the right thing to do to save the species.  

In fact, (with respect to elephant poaching) there are a lot of one-off cases, but you have this image that it’s over – that elephants are coming back – but the reality is that it’s not the case – there is a HUGE volume of ivory being trafficked.




Ivory carvings made from walrus tusks


Same with the rhinos and rhino horn.  I was at a dinner one night with some Princeton alums, giving the presentation, and there was this guy from Kenya –talking about how rhinos had been at the brink of extinction, and had made a huge recovery.   But in past three to five years they are again on the brink of extinction because of poaching.  In 2010 in South Africa, over 300 rhinos were killed for their horn.  Yet, despite the rumors, there has never been any scientific proof that rhino horn has any medicinal value whatsoever.

This is tragic – and more and more you find the poaching and sale of ivory, rhino horn, tiger bone and more, is being directed by organized syndicates.   There is a lot of evidence for (syndicated) wildlife trafficking although it is mostly anecdotal.  John Sellar from CITES has written several interesting papers related to anecdotal evidence– and Bill Clark (former head of Interpol’s Wildlife Crime Working Group) has too.  

Then, Sam Wasser, from University of Washington has been able to prove through DNA forensics that ivory shipments are linked, that families of elephants (in a geographic region) have been attacked.  

What this tells us is that the driver for poaching used to be poverty – and now (we know) the driver is wealth.   He (Wasser) was able to genetically match the samples in the trafficked ivory in Singapore with related animals living in a herd in a small geographic region.  Given where the transport had gone, one can prove that a syndicate was equipping poachers to kill a herd.   They proved it in two cases of seized ivory that it analyzed.  So (this evidence) is turning on its head, the notion that we’re dealing with a one-off type of hunter.  Now they (the syndicates) are equipping poachers. 

It’s the same with rhinos. – there is a lot of proof in South Africa that syndicates are equipping poachers –they are going in w/high powered rifles, helicopters and infrared binoculars.  The case of one syndicate of traffickers who were arrested in September was supposed to go to trial in South Africa on April 11, 2011 (but it’s now postponed to September).

On a personal level, one of my missions is to educate people – to try to reduce demand (for animal parts) by helping them to know that poaching exists.  So many people don’t know this problem exists and just the knowledge that it exists will build support for wildlife law enforcement and stronger penalties.   More prosecutors will take the cases because they feel it is more important, and if they understand the impact on the ecosystem.


A.N.N.: A lot of these cartels originate In Asia, and in southeast Asia, and their use of ivory is deeply embedded in their cultural beliefs.  How do you begin to change the beliefs of a culture? 

On the one hand, yes, it is part of the culture.  The animal parts, the bear bile, the shark fins, the rhino horns and tiger parts are used in Chinese medicines and is a part of the cultural identity.  Yet culture is not static.

In many cases, these products have never been proven to have medicinal properties.  On the other hand, bear bile does have medicinal properties, but you can also get it in synthesized versions.   And there are herbal alternatives.  Plus, many traditional medicine practitioners in China and elsewhere are against using bear bile because the cruelty (of extracting the bile) takes your breath away.  Harmony with nature is part of the Chinese and Asian cultures – so this conforms to cultural beliefs, too. 

In China, you have both traditional medicine and manufactured/processed medicine.  It isn’t so black and white, and not everyone in China wants traditional medicine using endangered wildlife.  There are a huge number of traditional medical doctors who are supporting alternatives.


There are many hopeful signs of a cultural shift.   We’re seeing that public pressure can have an impact. 

For example – there is a big bear bile company, the largest bear bile company in southern China –I did a blog on it –it is interesting because this company wanted to list on the local stock exchange to raise money to expand its business.  That meant increasing their “stock” from 470 bears to 1200 bears.  But what I found so interesting was that once it made the listing, there was a huge backlash on the internet with lots of tweeting, and other social communication, and the angry reaction was coming from the Chinese public.  Jill Robinson (President of Animals Asia) is one of my personal heroes.  She has helped to create a movement in China.  She said that China is waking up to this cruelty.  It is really encouraging.  

That’s one inkling that change is happening in China. 

There is another example of backlash: 

Citibank had a shark fin soup promotion in Hong Kong – the Hong Kong division of Citibank was offering credit card holders 15% off a shark fin dinner .  There was a highly visible Facebook campaign that was trying to stop the shark fin promotion – but it was the Chinese consumers themselves who were pushing it.  In the end, Citibank withdrew the promotion. 

Public pressure does have an impact.  We are beginning to see pressure from within China – the Chinese consumers are saying this promotion will negatively impact Citibank.

Attitudes do change –even it is something traditional, attitudes can change.

Here’s how the public can be a part of the campaign to stop wildlife poaching.


Laurel Neme website


Jeff Corwin Connect


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