story by Ofir Drori, The Last Great Ape Organization
"He is a white man wearing black who organises all. He has long hair that he always ties behind his head. He is dangerous. Never you joke with him. He has his own magic," the ivory dealer warns James (pseudonym), our agent, while closing another illegal deal near Cameroon's seaport. It is Christmas day and our team is impatient—we want to hear that our agent got a recorded confession so we can get him arrested with strong evidence. We have followed Hamza's involvement in the international trade for some time now.
It has been two years since I came to Cameroon and opened LAGA. It was born because the survival of Africa's great apes demands urgent action. Without it, primates and other threatened species like the forest elephants could soon become extinct.
LAGA, the first law enforcement non-governmental organization (NGO) in this sub-region of Africa, is designed to enhance effective enforcement of local wildlife protection laws, critical to the survival of threatened animals. We focus on animal dealers, the illegal bushmeat business, the ivory trade and commercial trade in exotic animals as pets.
Our previous operation in this area included large seizures and the arrest of a Chinese national. On September 11, 2004, two ivory dealers were arrested in the Douala port, following a successful operation between members of law enforcement, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA). The two were engaged in illegal ivory trade on the Chinese ship "Chi Feng Kou." The illegal activities in the Douala port were observed for two weeks before the operation took place.
Most of the sales documented took place on foreign ships in the Douala port where the ivory leaves to the international market—particularly to Asian countries. Chinese nationals were also observed purchasing articles such as Chinese chopsticks and Hanko and Buddha statues inside major ivory workshops, which were busted in a July seizure uncovering some 116.5 kg of ivory.
The organization is effective because we undertake investigations, technically assist the government in law enforcement operations, provide legal assistance as the cases move through the courts and present the operations to the public so they are aware of the risks of illegal wildlife activity. Our hands-on approach is crucial in countries where corruption has been defined as the main obstacle for achieving concrete results.
James is coming back with a wide smile on his face. We got more than we bargained for: a full confession describing how Hamza corrupted officials in the court and his plans to get out free. We laugh and praise James. As we celebrate and plan the next two ivory operations together, a LAGA member's wife calls. This time I don't have to apologize for taking her husband away; I just give her the good news that in a few hours we will all be back home in time for the Christmas feast.
LAGA is more of a family than an NGO; it's a small group of people who stand up for each other with a friendship formed by the long time sharing of the hardship of our struggle, as well as the constant tension and danger that accompany our mission.