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Ofir Drori1

Ofir Drori: Hunter of Wildlife Traffickers

A compassionate heart for a chimp leads to a fearless fight against the extinction of endangered animals and cultures.

Finding a purpose in life gave rise to more than Ofir Drori could have ever imagined. An Israeli writer, educator, and activist, Drori is the founder and director of the undercover task force, Last Great Ape organization (LAGA), the first wildlife law enforcement non-governmental organization (NGO) of its kind. In their day-to-day operations, LAGA helps African governments apply their wildlife laws against those engaged in the trafficking of endangered species.

Using espionage tactics and raids, the organization tracks down major wildlife dealers illegally trading in ivory, animals, and animal parts. Work is often dangerous as they go undercover to snag dealers, perpetrators, and corrupt officials. Working closely with law enforcement, LAGA follows up on court cases to ensure the prosecution and conviction of major wildlife criminals.

Destiny Calling

Drori dreamed of going to Africa ever since he was a young boy. “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,” he says in an interview with National Geographic. “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.”

Drori became a photojournalist/adventurer writing stories on human rights and conflicts across the continent, trying to make a difference. His life took on a more substantive role in 2002, while covering a story in Cameroon. He encountered a sick orphaned baby chimp being sold by wildlife traffickers. He took it upon himself to rescue it and took steps that later led to the trafficker’s incarceration. The process took several months and was the first ever wildlife prosecution in West and Central Africa.

While pursuing justice, he stayed in Cameroon and took responsibility for the baby chimp’s care and nurturing, and one day, its return to the rainforest. This sparked in him a desire to do more, to ensure the survival of the species. His heart convicted, the chimp became the face of his cause and he named it Future. He learned wildlife laws were not being enforced and corruption was rampant allowing the illegal trade to flourish. This was further fueled by lax conservation efforts. The problem made such an impact on him, he formed LAGA to find and capture wildlife offenders and see them sentenced for their crimes.

“Animals have the power to transform us, they touch our hearts, they light passion in us, passion that can move us to action, it has the power to make us better human beings,” he says in his TEDxEde talk. “We have the power to make a better future for us and for nature.”

Building a Solution

By integrating innovations, he was able to fight against corruption of conservation laws which had not been applied in 10 years. Through LAGA’s efforts to gather evidence and working with law enforcement, arrests and prosecutions of major wildlife dealers rose from zero to one per week. LAGA’s positive impact has forever changed animal welfare in Africa.

Among their activities, LAGA members create awareness in communities and hold events and workshops. But their hardcore work is infiltrating the depths of criminal networks, putting their own lives at risk for the sake of justice and protecting animals. LAGA also advocates strengthening weak conservation laws, many needing to be overhauled.

A Model for Success

LAGA found ways to apply the laws in Cameroon using an innovative cost-effective approach. This served as a model adopted by other African nations including Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Gabon. LAGA’s model is an effective crime deterrent consisting of an investigative team, arrest operations, legal follow up, and utilizing media for exposure.

Working with other NGOs, LAGA began to replicate their model and distribute their know-how throughout the African sub-region bringing about unprecedented prosecutions. LAGA is actively promoting their approach to more African governments so that they can work cooperatively to prosecute more cases.

 

In 2013, Drori transferred the LAGA model into his newly founded Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement (EAGLE) Network. Its vibrant community of likeminded conservation activists has made EAGLE a leader in fighting wildlife crime with over 1,400 arrests made. EAGLE is instrumental to the prosecutions and incarcerations of major wildlife traffickers. The network has effectively disrupted activities perpetrated by criminal syndicates, cartels, and crime bosses, both domestic and foreign.

“What I want to say is that it is possible to uproot corruption, to build consequences and slowly establish this as an accountability mechanism,” he says in an interview with From the Grapevine.

 

Just the Beginning

Drori sees LAGA’s efforts in fighting corruption in conservation as just a starting point. LAGA’s success has inspired anti-corruption found in other areas including law enforcement, child trafficking, and human rights. In 2005, Drori founded the NGO Anti Corruption (AC) with a mission to establish anti-corruption law enforcement in African countries.

AC uses innovative tools and a certification process to fight developing corruption. Citizens are empowered and involved in the fight against corruption using the court system. AC continues to discover ways to grow activism on a local level and engage people to make a difference in their communities and countries.

A Credible Force

LAGA has won numerous awards in law enforcement, activism, and conservation, lending more credence and legitimacy for their work. Among them are the Interpol Ecomessage Award; Golden Heart Award, the World Wildlife Fund Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal, CondéNaste Traveler Environment Award, and many others.

Drori’s book The Last Great Ape details his life, work, and activism. The memoir describes his harrowing adventures and onslaughts from nature, war zones, and personal threats. He reveals how he came to fight for justice and against the extinction of endangered animals. Watch this CNN news clip, a real eye-opener of Drori’s work…

Drori sees fighting corruption as the top priority since it prevents laws from being enforced. By inspiring African activists to embrace their natural heritage, they view corruption as a destroyer of what they hold dear. It is through their courage and persistence that corruption will continue to be challenged and overcome to preserve their future. For more information visit eagle-enforcement.org and laga-enforcement.org.