Anyone who has watched a movie on an airplane knows what I mean: the stories are always better up in the air. I get more emotional watching them at 37,000 feet than from my living room sofa. Does the airline put something in the ventilator to make us more sentimental? I asked myself that question again as I buckled in to the 8 hour flight from Nairobi to Bangkok following several wildlife protection training courses that Freeland just conducted with our new partners in Kenya, including a Wildlife Friendly Skies training with Kenya Airways, which I was now flying.
Locked into my space seat, I focused in on “Ali”, the film story of Muhammad Ali, played by Will Smith. First of all, I sat there feeling blessed to be living in an era with Will Smith as an actor. In Ali, he brilliantly brings out a character that many people, including myself, misunderstood for so long. I was brought up in small mid-western American towns, so I remember Cassius Clay-cum Ali spouting off about how he was going to cream each opponent, which was a turnoff for me and for my friends. We didn’t like braggers. I remember wanting Joe Frazier to whip Ali’s butt. Shut him up! But I came to realize much later –and was reminded in the movie—that Ali’s bravado was a cape he wore to convert fear and pain to strength and speed. And man, was he strong and fast. I watched the movie and then later the YouTube videos of his original fights and interviews and was reminded what a thoughtful, silver-tongued Adonis this man really was. He not only fought for himself in the boxing ring, he also fought for the oppressed. He risked and lost his heavy weight crown by refusing to fight in Vietnam, saying he didn’t understand why he would fly to the other side of the world to kill poor Vietnamese people when he should be home fighting for his own people. Ali absorbed the torment of slaves that suffered hundreds of years before him, as well as those fighting racism and apartheid in the USA and Africa during his own time. He absorbed their pain and frustrations, and then channeled it into strength and determination in the ring. And with that strength and determination he ran circles around and pummeled his opponents. He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.
The movie focuses on the famous “Rumble in the Jungle”, his 1974 fight with George Forman in what was then called Zaire, now the two Congos. I watched this part of the movie with increased interest, just having worked days before with Congolese officers and interpreters at one of our training courses. Those guys were special. Among the trainees from 8 different African countries, they stood out as fashionable and funny. Anyway, the Rumble fight is now perhaps the most famous match in boxing history. Ali was up against the younger and much stronger Forman, who was predicted to crush the older Ali. And in fact, for nearly 8 full rounds, Ali was up against the ropes, taking hard punch after punch from the massive Forman, making the crowd wince and cringe in pity for the former champ. Ali managed to avoid any knockout smash hits, but it looked like only a matter of time before he was going to fall or lose in points. Then with literally 30 seconds left in that 8th round, the seemingly impossible happened. The tired but determined looking Ali saw a slight window of opportunity and struck Forman on the side of his head, destabilizing him, then hit him quickly again, and again, and again, and to the enormous surprise of the 100,000 strong audience (not to mention millions watching on television around the world), Forman slowly teetered down like a fallen giant and did not get up to fight again. Knockout! No crowd has ever gone more wild.
I now watch that historic last round whenever I feel like life has got me or my organization down or on the ropes. I showed it to my staff. They work endlessly to stop wildlife trafficking and human slavery, and some days I know they are feeling like we are on the ropes. We know that victims are suffering every day, so we do our best to speed up and improve the response. But corruption and apathy in the governments we deal with can be more than frustrating. But then we remember the good officers and everyone’s busy schedules and keep going. It gets tough, though. I reminded the staff that they are like Ali. They are taking on the plight of victims, fighting for them, but that they should remember to fight wisely. Stopping wildlife and human trafficking takes more than passion and guts, it takes smarts and perseverance too. Like with any transnational organized crime, you can’t just run after the enemy protesting and yelling wildly for them to stop their abuse. They are big and powerful, so you have to be clever. Sometimes you have to take some punches, let them tire and get careless. Then, at the right moment, strike subtly and fast at their soft spot. Sting like a butterfly. I reminded them: when you are feeling tired to remember the victims. Hear their cries. Take strength from their cries. Fight for them — because hardly anyone else is.
Such has been the plight of one of our recent human trafficking operations. Without going into detail, what we had hoped would take 3 days to save several kids from their abusers has taken us months of doggedly pursuing a clever, organized and clearly well-linked syndicate that is making money by putting children on the street to sell and beg –and to possibly service pedophiles. That irks us to no end. But I also know that if we just chase after the culprits, they will crawl into darkness with the children, perhaps emerging again when it’s safe. We need to find their soft spot, then we need to dismantle this syndicate and make sure that nothing like it rears its head again. That will take smart investigations coupled with campaigns.
Our attempts to save the children have been frustrating, but the only silver lining is that through this investigation, we have learned a lot about the business of child trafficking, the criminals and their backers. We can find and analyze their soft spots. And all I can say further right now is that we will get them and we will save those kids. Ironically, part of our inability to pierce their armor was due to the fact that other parallel children-saving operations were being conducted, which thankfully led to some rescues. But many children remain in need of help. I will keep you posted as we learn and accomplish more.