Swiss-born photojournalist and wildlife activist Karl Ammann has been investigating the illegal trade in wildlife products for more than three decades. On the phone from Kenya, Ammann spoke to Southeast Asia Globe about staying out of trouble and his disillusionment with the authorities’ efforts to clamp down on the illicit wildlife trade
By Daniel Besant Illustration by Natalie Phillips
When did you visit Southeast Asia for the first time?
My brother-in-law has lived in Singapore and Bangkok and other places in the region for the past 30 years, so I’ve been visiting the region regularly throughout this time. I travelled extensively in Myanmar 20 or 30 years ago when it was still a pretty adventurous place.
When did you begin investigating wildlife crime in Southeast Asia?
It started around the same time. I remember when there was still cannabis for sale in the Sunday markets in Bangkok. People would open a bag up while you were having lunch to sell you stuff. One time there was a little gibbon inside a bag. I wondered how common these sales were. When I was in Jakarta I would go to the bird market to see what was going on.
What was the scariest moment you have had while doing an investigation?
In West and Central Africa you always get accosted by people and you never really know if it’s related to your work or if they’re checking out if you’re doing anything investigative. So my method is usually to arrive unannounced, stay around a day or two and then, when you start to get the impression people are wondering why you are there, why are you asking these questions, then move on. That has served me well. I think I’ve been close to confrontational situations many times, but if you move away fast, they don’t know what you’ve got, how much harm you might be able to do. You’re gone and you just hope that takes care of any future problems.
How successful have your campaigns against the trade in rhino horn and tiger bones been?
I got involved in it kind of by accident by following tiger stories and we ended up with dealers who, on the way out, would offer rhino horn to see if you were interested. So then we wondered if these dealers were concerned about selling and the next stage was, of course, realising it was too easily available, that it couldn’t be all real, and that probably 90% of what is being sold is fake, on the retail level anyway.
Vietnam’s prime minister recently issued a top-level directive to his line ministries prioritising enforcement at all levels, and across ministries, to combat the poaching and trafficking of African elephant ivory and rhino horn. How effective do you think this will be?
At the moment, I’m convinced that 90% of what’s being done in Southeast Asia is window dressing and lip service. Making pronouncements, signing MOUs [Memoranda of Understanding], that’s the easy part. I have identified dealers, particularly a major dealership outside of Hanoi, that sell kilos and kilos of real rhino horn on a daily basis. The information has been in the hands of Interpol and Traffic [a wildlife trade monitoring network] and Cites [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] for more than a year now and there has been no enforcement action and the dealer’s shop is still as active as before. And it turns out there are more shops in the same village doing the same thing. In my opinion, they are some of the biggest dealers in Southeast Asia and they go on operating despite the fact I have passed on information to a range of enforcement authorities and nothing has changed. Once something changes on that front, then I will believe that something is really happening.
What do you think organisations and affected countries need to do to combat the trade?
I think they need to go after the top end, the big guys, the ones with the connections. We need to send a message that they are not immune. Just going after one or two guys with a small amount of rhino horn at the airport, who were probably just couriers, those are the easy guys to hammer and sort out. The top-end guys are well connected, they stay behind the scenes. It’s easy to link them with evidence because they finance and arrange it all. They are the key players and as far as I can see, none of them are ever arrested or prosecuted.
Are there other people or organisations working towards combating the illegal wildlife trade that you believe deserve more credit?
There are people out there that pass on information, who do it on the quiet, which is the only way to be really effective. In my travels I have to worry about being recognised and in some ways I have been too high profile and I can no longer do what I used to do. Now I work with local guys with hidden cameras. We review the material then make transcripts of what was said and get the story that way. There are players out there who go unrecognised and want to remain unrecognised.
What message do you have for the leaders of Southeast Asian countries?
I think China and Vietnam are the key places. So for China and Vietnam, my message is that I want them to become serious. Don’t think you are going to get away with window dressing and lip service. Sooner or later the world will catch up to what is really going on – and I hope that more people will be doing more investigative work – so don’t expect the issues to go away. Become serious now and deal with it.
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