Lessons about Life and Death, from Prison

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By Steve Galster, Freeland Founder & Director

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Prison visits remind us how lucky we are right now.[1] The tall walls, barbed wire, and guards on patrol may or may not be correcting those unfortunate souls inside, but they sure send a message to the rest of us: Enjoy your freedom, within the law.

On my visit last week to a little known ‘Corrections Facility’ in Southeast Asia, I was also reminded that most prisoners are poor. The men I saw walking around in uniformed pajamas could never afford to pay a big bribe or expensive lawyer. That is not to say they are all innocent. Some, like the guy we came to see, ‘Joe’ (pseudonym), were caught red-handed in a deadly act. But I surmised that most of the young, head-shaven men I observed doing group exercises in the concrete courtyard were caught smuggling drugs for some kingpin who is still out there, making more money. A few prisoners were older and longer-term residents, including an 85 year-old man who stabbed his wife to death 40 years ago, then failed to complete the double suicide in spite of a deep cut into his own stomach. Sad stories all around. I’ve been to prisons before for interviews, and I have never met a prisoner who I did not feel sorry for, no matter what they did.

Tigers on ice- one pill made of tiger bone and cobra reportedly now sells for $300

Tigers on ice- one pill made of tiger bone and cobra reportedly now sells for $300

Joe was no exception. Ironically, he used to put some of the rarest and most majestic living species behind bars before slaughtering them. I’m talking tigers, bears, orangutans, and less glamorous ones, like snakes, turtles, and pangolins (not penguins). Joe was the co-owner of a private zoo. People could pay to come and see the animals in their cages. Then when an order came through to eat one, Joe and his staff would kill it, carve it up, put it on ice, and then ship it to another distributor across the border. Every week.

A shell of his former self, this large, iconic wildlife trader was ushered into the visiting cell in a wheelchair, his excess weight pouring over the arm-rests. Wearing a prosthetic lower leg, he had considerable gray, thinning hair, and was holding onto a portable plastic urination canister.  I was in awe. I had followed Joe’s criminal career for 13 years, always one step behind him, and had often dreamed of a chance to meet him and get inside his head. We needed his information and perspective to stop the killing. I had so many questions. I put my glasses on in order to see every detail of his facial and body expressions as he spoke, while edging closer to hear his every word.

Rarely do wildlife criminals go to prison like “Chai” Lemthongthai did in South Africa

Rarely do wildlife criminals go to prison like “Chai” Lemthongthai did in South Africa

After locking his wheelchair, the guard turned to us before exiting: “I like this one,” he smiled, “because he can’t escape from me,” then left us alone. We awkwardly squared off from one another across the table.

Joe was expressionless, as he gazed at his visitors. He had not been told of our visit or who we were. He didn’t ask either. He politely waited for my colleagues and I to start while we fumbled with our thick background files, visibly labeled with his name. As we demonstrated our knowledge about him through questions and pictures, he slowly opened up. He smiled lightly, and was intrigued. We knew a lot about him. But he could probably see what we didn’t know too. Joe proceeded to tell us stories from inside Asia’s illegal wildlife trade. He held back on some information, reminding us that there is honor among thieves, but his willingness to answer even basic questions about how poachers and traffickers operate had us on the edges of our small wooden chairs for the next 3.5 hours.

Joe knew a lot, especially about tigers – how they’re ordered, caught, killed, carved, and marketed. I was desperate to find out if he and other criminals were buying tigers from farms or from the wild through poachers. He said both, but that many of the tigers he handled were wild ones smuggled from Malaysia. This confirmed news from the Malaysia Star that just came through, showing a wild tiger shot from a poacher hiding up in a tree after snaring the huge cat in a trap below.

He spoke with a soft voice when recounting aspects of fellow criminals and family members, many of whom were now dead. Occasionally he would bashfully beg our pardon to relieve himself in front of us, apologizing for his diabetic need to frequently flush. I was pinching myself. We were learning from the source. And …. I kind of liked the guy.

I know that sounds bad. But in all my years fighting wildlife and human trafficking, this keeps happening. We help law enforcement agencies track down and catch crooks like Joe (and sometimes when we are very lucky, people higher up). But truth be told, I get no personal pleasure from seeing anyone get imprisoned. It’s largely because prisons are hell. People are dehumanized. The dominators become dominated. And an eye for an eye just makes us all blind.

But it’s also because I’m aware of a huge transition going on in our world right now: most people are just now waking up to the need to protect wildlife. Wildlife conservationists have until recently represented a tiny minority. Joe was in the majority. He was brought up to believe that wild animals, like tigers, could be used as medicines and carpets, just like cows could be used for hamburgers and shoes.

4Life-for-sale--The-complex,-global-multi-billion-dollar-wildlife-trade-is-worth-billions-

Life for sale -The complex, global multi-billion dollar wildlife trade is worth billions

I do realize that we need to stop criminals like Joe to protect wild animals and our environment. I just wish there was no demand for endangered species in the first place, and that people like Joe were offered another kind of job to make a living. Alternative livelihoods.

Alternative Livelihood Programs for Poachers- work for some, not for others

Alternative Livelihood Programs for Poachers- work for some, not for others

Then with his next story, Joe crushed that illusion. While alternative livelihoods are an important part of curbing wildlife, human and drug trafficking, Joe was not a candidate for such programs. At his peak as a wild animal trader, he told us he could gross the same amount of money in one day as he had in one year as a construction worker. He also mentioned that traffickers have come up with a new tonic made of tiger bone mixed with Cobra blood that was being marketed for $300/pill and even exported to the USA. A stark reminder that rules and enforcement are necessary –everywhere: we’ll inform the White House which has formed a “Presidential Task Force on Combating Wildlife Crime.”

Body bag- lion skeletons, like tiger bones, are used for medicines

Body bag- lion skeletons, like tiger bones, are used for medicines

But law enforcement is the finger in the dike, which is going to bust completely if we don’t change hearts and mindsets soon. No market, no killing. The information Joe provided is valuable, but it is not going to be used for enforcement (he kept those details to himself). Joe’s insights will be used to support another kind of battle to protect wildlife that is taking place from far behind the frontlines.  (to be continued)

[1] My apologies if you are reading this from prison, but if you are, I’m glad your facility affords you the right to read on-line information and that you’re choosing to learn about this topic. I welcome any insights or feedback you may have. Thank you.

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