No country can solve wildlife crime alone: Steven Galster
Profession: Director, FREELAND
Passion: Fair and equal treatment for all people and animals
Hobbies: Singing and swimming
1. What motivates you to work every day unfailingly in an environment replete with risks and dangers to yourself and to your colleagues?
SG: The fact that most of the conservation and human rights world is busy in meetings and showing each other power points – that motivates me to do something. I'm lucky that I get paid to work on these issues. I should really work.
2. Did your college life at Grinnell influence your choice of career as a wildlife crime investigator in any way?
SG: Indirectly, yes. I went to college to become a biology teacher and a basketball coach. I'm from a very small town of a thousand people. Grinnell opened my eyes to a big world out there and got me interested in International affairs. In the end, I melded my love for biology with a new passion for global security.
3. Why did you choose Political Science and then follow it up with a Masters in Security Studies at George Washington University?
SG: I became aware of how influential the USA was on the global scene and didn't think my country was always behaving responsibly. The good thing about the States is that you can speak up and criticize. But I wanted to be a credible critic – from inside or outside the system. So I took these courses.
4. Would you like to share one (or a few) of your most memorable experiences during college?
SG: Too many good ones to choose from. I miss those days!
5. Can you please name authors and books that influenced you during your college days and thereafter?
SG: In college I had ADD (still do), so reading was difficult for me. Couldn't get through a good book without the first 3 pages exciting me and prompting me to get up and do something! I remember liking Tolstoy, Henry Miller and Gore Vidal. Now that I meditate I can read more easily and can't get enough of Oscar Wilde. All of these authors were introspective and passionate, and Oscar Wilde is hilarious.
6. Which are the top nations consuming illegal wildlife products and why?
SG: China, the United States and the European Union (if we can call the EU a country now). China, because it has a huge population, growing wealth, and a long history of buying wildlife products for food, medicine, and collectibles. The USA and EU, mainly for pets and leather products. Like any "product" in the world, it flows to wealth and demand.
7. What are the superstitions/ ancient beliefs in South East Asia that continue to fuel wildlife crime? How are your teams creating awareness against such evil practices?
SG: I don't see superstition driving the trade. Surveys show that it is largely men between the ages of 25‐45 with a lot of money, who are buying these products in order show off. How do you change that? I think by getting those guys to realize they are not impressing anyone. Society needs to put the word out that owning ivory trinkets, rhino horns or tiger skins, or buying shark fin soup or bear gall bladder tonics, etc, is as unimpressive as owning slaves.
8. In one of your Freeland presentations, it is stated that international wildlife trader Anson Wong was detained at the KL International Airport trying to smuggle 90 snakes. He was sentenced to 71 months in jail. The need of the hour is stronger penalties. Do you think legislators should be involved in ground level, selective 'sting' operations?
SG: Anson Wong was indeed given a long sentence, but was released early last year. Malaysia has one of the best new laws on wildlife in the region. But in some countries, a good lawyer can still get you out of jail if you have good connections. Corruption remains the biggest challenge for wildlife conservationists in Asia. More sting operations? Definitely. But we need to be sure that when they catch Mr. or Mrs. Big, they don't slip out. That is demoralizing for law enforcers and anyone who cares about wildlife.
9. We learn that Inter‐agency rivalries (between police, customs, Interpol, CITES, et al) are very real and common. How do you manage it?
SG: NGOs are just as bad sometimes. It's all about turf issues and competition for resources. Egos sometimes play a role. All organizations need to recognize that if they stick to what they're good at, what they specialize in, then it is easier to work together. Everyone has a special, unique role. The work of Customs, Police, and CITES are distinctly different. Customs manages borders. Police conduct investigations and make arrests. CITES monitors trade and is tasked with withholding permits when the trade is out of control.
10. How can corruption in the task forces be effectively prevented? Inter‐agency task forces would help, yes. Is it also related to poverty?
SG: The most damaging corruption I've seen comes from a few wealthy officers who want even more. They protect traffickers. They lead by bad example and show other officers down the chain that it is okay to extort and look the other way. That's not poverty, that's greed. How do you deal with it? Shine the spotlight on the good officers and their achievements. Exposing good governance can help marginalize bad governance. As people get older, they realize that all those clichés are right –"money can't buy love", "you can't take it with you", etc. But you can feel good about yourself for doing the right thing. That's invaluable compensation.
11. Loose lips might sink ships. If you could, please briefly tell us of any 'sting' that had to be called off due to operational leaks? How do you ensure secrecy during covert operations?
SG: I'd have loose lips if I told you! Way too many operations have been botched due to leaks. Again this is tied mainly to corruption, but also a bit to the need for specialized investigation training.
12. Often the first level in wildlife trafficking are the poor rural hunters. Sometimes the middle men are insurgents or terrorists (for example, in Indonesia's Aceh province). How can governmental and non‐governmental agencies effectively break this nexus?
SG: With wildlife crime becoming so lucrative and organized, most commercial poachers are now professionals. Yes, there are some poor hunters too, but they're acting more like guides these days. If you can offer the poor hunters an alternative livelihood, then you can lure them out of the criminal circle so that law enforcement can focus on the hardened crooks. But you have to balance such an approach with law enforcement, otherwise poachers will take any help you offer, while still going hunting. Professional, intelligence‐led investigations that target the high level trafficker is the best way to break the criminal chain.