John Gavitt: WildAid's Newest Warrior

John Gavitt:
WildAid’s Newest Warrior

Interviewed by Ed “Redwood” Ring
July 19th, 2001

When one considers the size and scope of the environmental movement, the organizations, the institutions, involving hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars, it can come as a shock to realize only a handful of groups actually operate on the front lines.

John Gavitt of WildAid
(photo: Scott Mason)

One of these groups, WildAid (, headquartered in San Francisco, has distinguished itself for years as a group not afraid to get into the thick of the fight to save endangered species. (see EcoWorld’s “WildAid…”) They are responsible for funding and training anti-poaching patrols in the Russian Far East, Southeast Asia, the Galapagos Islands, and elsewhere. WildAid has also made a specialty of tracking down and arresting traders of endangered species, such as a recent sting in Cambodia where two Asian sun bears and seven rare Indochinese tigers were rescued from wildlife traffickers.

About six months ago, WildAid added a potent weapon to their arsenal with the hiring of John Gavitt, a 52-year-old Virginian who has devoted his entire career to wildlife law enforcement. Just returned from a five week trip to Cambodia and Thailand to train wildlife rangers, EcoWorld caught up with Gavitt for a brief interview.

EcoWorld: Are there any other organizations like WildAid?

(photo: WildAid)

Gavitt: I’m not familiar with all of them, but I know of no others that focus on wildlife law enforcement and on-the-ground on-site assistance. We’re small, mobile, and attack problems. We don’t spend lots of resources on research studies instead of doing something. If it’s obvious something’s going on we try to go out and tackle it head on.

EcoWorld: What would you consider to be your most significant accomplishment so far with WildAid?

Learning to read maps
(photo: John Gavitt)

Gavitt: It’s a little too soon to tell. So far I’ve been helping set up law enforcement training programs, drawing on 26 years of involvement with wildlife law enforcement programs in the U.S. and abroad. The approach is to put the recruits through practical training exercises that are as realistic as possible. In the latest training 20 people from the community role-played, from trader to bodyguard to concerned citizen to police officer. This made it more realistic.

EcoWorld: What do you think of using hunting fees to fund community development and the expenses of maintaining a game reserve, as was done with some success in Zimbabwe?

Gavitt: Not speaking for WildAid, personally I support fee-hunting provided it’s under a properly controlled wildlife management program. In the U.S. hunting license fees bring in millions per year. Anything that will preserve wildlife and habitat in the long term I’m for, because it really comes down to economics in those countries, and hunting is a good way to justify preserving wildlife from an economic basis.

EcoWorld: How do you think consciousness can be changed among consumers, particularly in Asia, to end using animal parts for medicinal purposes?

On Patrol in Bokor
Nat’l Park, Cambodia
(photo: John Gavitt)

Gavitt: Often groups that are consuming these products don’t link the animal with the product. Through information and education they become aware that they are contributing to the endangerment of a species. It can make a difference simply when people realize the consequences of their actions. The vast majority of people have a good conscience and will change their behavior.

EcoWorld: Who is behind the logging operations in Cambodia and Thailand?

Gavitt: We know that the military is involved in the large-scale illegal logging concessions that are resulting in major destruction of wildlife habitat. Because of that we’re trying to get the military involved in the training itself. One of the things about corruption is that it’s often caused by a lack of understanding. When they see the problems this (logging) is creating it can change attitudes even among the powerful decision makers. The consequences from political pressure from other countries also helps. Hopefully it won’t be too late.

EcoWorld: So you think there’s a good chance for reform from within?

WildAid LogoGavitt: In the vast majority of situations the local government makes the right decisions but they make them too late. Trying to get governments to move in a timely manner for wildlife conservation is a big challenge.

EcoWorld: What else would you like to say, based on your recent experiences with WildAid in Southeast Asia?

Gavitt: All I can say after being over there is that time is running out to really make a difference in wildlife conservation. We must put our resources together to change the existing situation while there is still time to save wildlife and habitat in a significant way.

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