All in a day's work – EIA's undercover investigator reports

Switch on player. Is camera running properly? Where’s the light source? Is trader in frame? Two hours starts now. Is voice pen concealed? Conversation begins. Remember cover story. Talk naturally. Don’t prompt with yes/no questions. Trader relaxes. Good time to ask sensitive questions? Half-hour left on tape. Swap tape now? Visit toilet to make switch. Another two hours begin. Factory tour. Moving targets for camera and lighting. Loud noise from machinery. Bingo! Trader divulges his criminal activities. Was he in shot? Was his voice audible? Tape runs out. Time’s up – game over.

Being an undercover wildlife crime investigator can be a stressful job. Convincing the criminals you investigate that you are one of them, whilst at the same time doing your job of gathering evidence to incriminate them, can be mentally exhausting. It’s like being Jekyll and Hyde. Knowing when to press further for more information, and when to step back from the situation is key to whether you succeed or fail. Pushing forward at the wrong moment can arouse suspicion and suddenly land you in a precarious situation. Stepping back at the wrong moment can mean you miss out on that vital name or phone number that could lead you deeper into the criminal network. It’s about knowing your subject. Every trader is different; play up to Mr A’s ego and he’ll tell you everything in the first half an hour. Spend a few weeks wining and dining Mr B and you’ll win his trust in the end.

Ricky Gunawan, major player in the smuggling of illicit merbau caught on hidden camera. Credit EIA

Ricky Gunawan, major player in the smuggling of illicit merbau caught on hidden camera. Credit EIA

The fact that every trader is different is also what makes the job interesting. At the beginning of each investigation, EIA’s team of campaigners and investigators are given a small piece of information, a piece to a jigsaw puzzle; together we work to find as much of the missing pieces as possible, through internet research and on-the-ground informants. Then we plan and undertake undercover fieldwork to collect the hard evidence we need to argue our case. Sometimes one meeting will give us just a small piece of the puzzle, and sometimes that small piece will complete a whole section and the bigger picture will become clearer. The lead that I get from an illegal logger in Indonesia can take me to a timber trader in Malaysia and then to a crime boss in China.

But just as I don’t know where the leads will take me, I also don’t know who I’ll meet or in what dark alley. In the past, investigators have been kidnapped, imprisoned, beaten and received death threats. Of course, the closer you get to the ringleader, the higher the stakes – for both trader and investigator.

For example, in 2010 I was in Zambia trying to get close to an elusive ivory kingpin called “Stephen” (not his real name). For days I tried to convince his henchmen I was an ivory trader and finally “Stephen” agreed to meet me at a hotel. When his henchmen arrived, they pretended they didn’t know me, and instead cautiously scoped out the lobby for signs of a police set-up before eventually escorting “Stephen” in through the back entrance. It took a number of subsequent meetings before he finally trusted me enough to reveal how he sold ivory tusks to visiting officials in the Chinese government.

Undercover Investigation. Credit EIA

Undercover Investigation. Credit EIA

During another investigation in Tibet, we arranged a specific meeting place with a trader where we would view a tiger skin. But as soon as we arrived we were told to get in the car and driven at speed to an unknown secluded location, leaving our back-up security team scrambling to locate us. Because we were now vulnerable, with no-one knowing where we were, we were forced to abandon our investigation and focus on keeping our cover and making it back safely. See a short clip from Inside: The Tiger Trade.

So with all the stress and dangers involved, why would anyone want to do this job? I’ve been an investigator for 10 years now (5 for EIA) and my answer is still the same. Because to stop illegal wildlife crime, you need intel, and to get that intel you need to get involved with the criminal networks behind the trade. EIA is the only organization that gathers this kind of evidence and puts it in the hands of the people who matter. On a personal level, I do the job because I can’t not. The more I uncover, the more I discover, the more determined I am to find that last piece of the jigsaw.

Undercover Investigator. Credit Red Earth Studios

EIA Undercover Investigator