Learning from the Sky


As I ran through another airport to catch another flight around another leg of this big, beautiful globe, my brain rushed along with all the people and air traffic around me, causing me wonderful stress and excitement. Adrenalin, for some reason, can cause epiphanies, and no doubt they are personalized. Mine this time was work-related: wildlife and human trafficking, I realized, remain two of the world’s most profitable criminal businesses because those tasked with stopping it are stuck in meetings.

africa dogsCounter-trafficking activists are thinning out at the frontline, not so much because they fear the traffickers (I’m sure that some understandably do), but increasingly because they have to spend more time writing reports and proposals and going to meetings to fight for their own financial survival. My other stories have danced subtly around this subject, but lets go straight to the dance floor this time, and jet back into the sky after that.

All charitable and public service organizations –NGOs and government agencies, even the UN and INTERPOL—are focused first and foremost on their own economic survival, then secondly on their sustained economic growth, and thirdly on achieving their mission. Sound sad and boring? Correct. But think about it: These rescuers have to feed their troops before going into battle to save the world. So they compete for donations. Sharp elbows come out, and the Game of Do-Gooder Thrones can get ugly. In most cases, thankfully, the battles for donations are not driven by greed or a hunger for power. Most organizations just want to do their job, but they can’t perform without paying their rent, their staff, and having operational funds. So that means they spend a bunch of time fundraising. How? They write press releases, they do online donation campaigns, they write reports, they (ahem) write blogs, and they go to heaps of meetings where they wave their flags in death-by-powerpoint sessions where everyone tries to demonstrate how their program is the single best answer to world peace. I’d venture to say that 50% of philanthropic grants and public donations aimed at curbing human or wildlife trafficking –and many other social ills– are actually spent on writing reports and proposals and attending meetings that largely result in more reports, proposals and meetings.

I know I am not the only NGO director who has struggled in the past to keep their staff at the frontline, chasing poachers, loggers, and traffickers, while paying the bills to keep them there until the job is finished. And I am happy to report that we found a way to keep meetings to a minimum, while spending more time going head-on with corruption and organized crime.  We found the solution by looking at another community that experienced insecurity and competitive strife, and eventually found their own way forward– the airline industry.

bag scan

Some thirty years ago, airlines were at their peak of insecurity, competing with one another to grab as much of the market share as they could get. The competition got nasty. Price wars combined with pilot strikes led to more accidents. Lose-lose: the companies, employees and clients all suffered. Finally, some of the airlines merged. Or more accurately, one company swallowed up another. But that’s not the solution I’m talking about.

Some airlines took the bold move of forming partnerships.

Specifically, some airlines wanted to maintain their business and brand instead of being absorbed into a big conglomerate, so they joined up with other airlines to form alliances. The idea was simple: link up, serve the client together, and survive. Strategic partnerships were formed between airlines on one side that had staked out solid, reliable services from points A to D with airlines on another side that had the best services from points D to F, and so on. Each airline filled a dotted line on the map. Together they got the client from A to Z (or nearly), while each company stayed in business under their loose alliance umbrella brand. And so was born the Star Alliance, Sky Team, and other business coalitions.

While the airline industry may not be perfect today, anyone who has been flying for 30 years knows how much it has progressed. We just assume now that on any given day, we can start out in one part of the world and end up on the other the following day. We save our complaints for whether we got a window or aisle seat or if there’s a delay. But we are reasonably confident that we will reach our destination.

The community of do-gooder organizations looks more like the airline industry did 3 decades ago: it’s still all over the map, competitive and disjointed. Philanthropists find it difficult to help move the client — people stuck in slave-like conditions, or wild animals being captured or murdered for sale—to their destination, which is freedom. That may finally be changing.

Alliances are forming.

The new ‘Give Peace to Elephants’ campaign by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) features some of China’s top Key Opinion Leaders

A few years back, for example, Freeland formed an alliance with like-minded wildlife conservation organizations in Asia. Although wildlife trafficking is still bad in Asia, 10 years ago it was horrific. Driven by organized crime, poor government capacity, and huge consumer demand, the problems were spread all over the region: Too big of a problem for any of us to attack on our own. We decided to split up the challenge by looking at who could address the most urgent geographic and thematic gaps. Some of the like-minded groups that were recruited into the alliance worked in Thailand, others in Vietnam, others in China, Cambodia, Singapore, etc. Some were experts on anti-poaching, others on education and demand reduction, some on law. But we had never worked consistently or strategically together before. So we came together, secured a joint grant from the US Agency for International Development, and called ourselves “ARREST”: Asia’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking.


The results from ARREST are now coming in and worth writing about. Enforcement is up more than 10-fold thanks to training support. Demand for ivory has gone down in China thanks to campaigning, while a tiger population has risen in a protected area supported by alliance advisors. There are still big problems to deal with, but ARREST partners were able to focus more on fixing the problem than with fundraising, allowing them to discover recipes for repair that can now be shared and expanded. We achieved a lot more together than any of us could have achieved alone. We all got paid. We all received credit.   And we are all still in business. And equally important, we learned a lot from one another. The organization ENV in Vietnam taught us how to develop a successful wildlife crime hotline. Our Vietnam government partner, BCA, taught us how to motivate the Communist Party. In China, IFAW showed us how to leverage millions of dollars from the private sector to push out low budget demand reduction campaigns to tens of millions of people. In Singapore, partner ACRES taught us that good old fashioned town hall meetings are still a great way to whip up interest on a subject. And Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia reminded us of the power of animation in engaging youth.


The experiment of partnerships has worked well enough that we recently decided to create an alliance for counter-human trafficking. Although it is new, 3 core organizations have agreed to form the “Liberty Alliance”.   And just a few months ago we replicated and launched ARREST with partners in Africa to fight wildlife crime there (“Africa’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking”).

So I found it very appropriate that the newest partner in our alliance against wildlife crime would be…. the airline industry!

Operation Game Change WildFest

Traffickers are using commercial airlines to move live animals and animal body parts around the world on a regular basis. That’s right. Whether you are squeezed into your economy seat or sitting more comfortably in your business class pod, there may be wildlife sitting below you in cargo. Sometimes the animals are even stowed secretly away in the overhead compartment. Other times the traffickers will use cargo planes. In any case, recent seizures show how big and diverse the air traffic really is. We’re talking tons of ivory tusks that represent hundreds of dead elephants, stuck in metal boxes labeled telecommunication parts one week, or agricultural pumps the next. Rhino horns concealed in pottery statues packed into large souvenir boxes. Live baby tiger cubs drugged with Xanax, lying among socks in a duffle bag. Hundreds of turtles wrapped tightly in tape so they can’t move, piled on one another inside large suitcases. We’ve even seen live reptiles, small monkeys, and exotic bird eggs hidden on people’s bodies under their clothes. Bottom line: there’s a lot of wildlife being moved through airports around the world on a daily basis. And a lot of it can be stopped if airport-based staff were trained to look for it.


So the idea behind the new program Wildlife Friendly Skies is simple: make airport-based staff and passengers aware of possible wildlife smuggling and tell them what to do if they if they see it. Wildlife Friendly Skies classes take place at airports; consist of airline attendants, ground security staff, baggage handlers, and anyone working in the airport, which is a world unto itself. The sessions are short: 3 hours is the total length of the course. People working in busy airports don’t have time to spare. So we show them concrete examples of wildlife smuggling that already took place in their airport, or on their airline. Then we show them how to detect it, and who to call if they see something suspicious (including complicity of their colleagues). And if the airline or airport is interested, we supply them with beautifully produced billboards and banners for the walkways and baggage carousels, as well as inflight magazine and video material, all featuring wild animals in their natural environment together with a telephone number to call to report illegal trafficking.

So far, Wildlife Friendly Skies has spread to airports and airlines in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Laos, Cambodia, and Kenya, with more about to take off. The program is getting great support from the global air traffic industry, namely the International Air Traffic Association (IATA). Take a look around your airport next time you fly and see if you notice anything suspicious. And look out for banners that feature the logos of some NGO and airline partners who have decided to team up to act on your tip-off.