Peter Knights co-directs WildAid, which is probably the most under-recognized heroic environmental organization on earth. Somehow Peter Knights went from being a graduate of the London School of Economics to a leader on the front lines of the fight to save endangered species. I don’t know how this man in his mid-thirties got from there to here, and I didn’t ask. But talking with him last week at their offices in San Francisco, it was clear there was not only uncommon courage but great intellectual substance to this warrior for the environment.
WildAid has their offices on the 2nd floor of a 1907 building on the north side of Pacific just east of Montgomery. Including Peter, there is only a staff of five here, but what WildAid does from this nondescript office and with his skeleton staff is nothing short of remarkable. WildAid also has small offices in D.C., Bangkok, Vladivostok and London; their web site is located at here.
|Indigenous anti-poaching patrol,
funded by WildAid.
Some jobs in the fight to save endangered species are more, let’s just say, perilous than others. WildAid, has chosen the toughest of the tough as their strong suit; patrolling against armed poachers, and tracking down and arresting international traffickers in body parts of endangered species.
Knights and his colleagues travel the world identifying local police and rangers who are attempting to stop the poachers. He then uses WildAid funds to equip and train the rangers. The work doesn’t stop once a check is written, WildAid also places experts in wildlife security with these anti-poaching groups, who then train them in effective tactics, including non-lethal forms of apprehension. Recently, for example, WildAid co-director Suwanna Gauntlett sent John Gavitt, who had been the Chief Ranger for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, to Cambodia on an assignment to train anti-poaching rangers in that country.
Poaching can reduce a species to extinction within a few short years, if demand suddenly rises and local police power diminishes. That is exactly what happened in the Russian Far East in the ’90s, when Soviet authority waned and lawless elements began to exercise more dominance. At the same time global prosperity, particularly in Asia, caused sharply higher demand for the body parts of tigers. WildAid’s program to equip and train the Rangers in the Russian Far East is largely responsible for pulling that creature back, barely, from total extinction. The Siberian tiger is now thought to be stable and increasing in population. The program is generally recognized as the most effective anti-poaching for tigers in the world.
|Black Bear in a Cage|
It’s impossible to describe in a short report all the work WildAid is doing with all these species. It’s important to note that their direct efforts have rescued many of these species from destruction in several parts of the world. One of the areas where WildAid is fighting a tough battle is against the bear poachers. The gallbladder of a bear is considered a valuable medicine in many parts of Asia, and bears are being killed just for their gallbladder, much as rhinos have been killed just for their horn.
Bear gall is considered so valuable that in China there are “bear farms” where bears are kept in cages and a permanent shunt “milks” the liver produced bile from their gallbladders. These bears often survive for many years, chained, with medical tubes leeching fluid from their internal organs, unable to move in their tiny cages.
|Jackie Chan and Peter Knights|
Most of the trade in body parts of endangered species would die a withering death if the demand for them, based on a traditional belief in their medicinal and mystical properties, would go away. WildAid has been orchestrating public awareness campaigns in Asia. Joined by famous far-eastern celebrities such as Jackie Chan, and far-western celebrities such as Peter Benchley (who is atoning for his novel “Jaws” which vilified sharks), Knights has conducted widespread television campaigns in Asia under the slogan, “when the buying stops, the killing can stop, too.” These campaigns have reached millions, but by themselves may be too little too late, he believes.
|Fins Being Cut Off Shark|
The most deplorable of all threats to endangered species has to be that which faces the shark, in all the oceans of the planet. An astonishing 100 million sharks and other species resembling sharks are killed each year by the commercial fishing industry, and most of them are killed only for their fins. In a macabre ritual that repeats itself around the world, the sharks, dead or alive, have their fins removed by knife as they writhe on the decks of fishing craft, and then they are thrown back into the sea, some still alive.
Eating shark fin soup, which can cost $100 per bowl in Hong Kong, is considered a mark of prestige. Even more than the reputed healthful effects, is the gesture that eating this expensive delicacy represents. The fin, in fact, has no flavor, and only yields a noodle-like texture.
WildAid is campaigning for a global ban on shark finning rather than a ban on all fishing of sharks. They hope to bring global attention to this issue. They are working with the government and the fishing industries to reduce shark fishing to sustainable levels. At the same time, they will work on reducing the demand for shark fin soup in Asia.
Knights mentioned this effort as a choice of pragmatism over dogmatism. Knights noted that preventing all exploitation of a species was often not a viable option. While he may have ethical concerns about big game hunting, for example, he would not oppose it in conservation terms if it didn’t impact the species and generated funds benefiting conservation.
As well as campaigning, WildAid focuses on equipping and training rangers in the field. To channel funds as directly as possible, WildAid has 100% of its overhead covered by a grant from The Barbara Delano Foundation. This means that 100% of the contribution made by any individual donor will go directly to efforts in the field to save endangered species. Moreover, the donor can select the projects to which they want to see the funds directed. Only a few nonprofits are as close to the front lines as this one.
|Galapagos Patrol Boat
Supported by WildAid
I tried to imagine Peter Knights, an urbane Englishman who was absolutely focused on his work, trekking the wilds of Russia with the Rangers, or venturing through the mangroves of the Galapagos Islands in a patrol boat he procured for the Park Services, in search of illegal fishing operations. There aren’t very many people fighting for the environment who can navigate the diplomatic halls of Switzerland as easily as they descend to the violent trenches in the battles for survival of species, at the very ends of the earth.