Photograph by Arthur Sniegon
Naftali Honig was on a travel break between college and grad school—he thought—when he took a fateful backpacking trip across central Africa in 2008. On that trip, taken while he was living in the rainforest of the Republic of the Congo’s Conkouati‐Douli National Park, Honig met activists who told him about the corruption driving the Congo’s illegal wildlife trade.
Not long afterward, he witnessed a commercial bushmeat trader bust and realized the poacher would probably never face serious punishment. The incident inspired Honig to do something about wildlife trafficking and corruption. With the activists he’d met, Honig co-founded EAGLE (Eco-Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement) six years ago, which works to bring justice for targeted wildlife.
Honig is also training and deploying detection dogs in the Congo. The dogs can detect, among other things, ivory, the demand for which drove the killings of an estimated 100,000 African elephants in just three years between 2010 and 2012.
Honig isn’t just raising awareness about the illegal slaughter and trafficking of wildlife. He is going after the arrest and prosecution of the bigger players in this market. Below, he shares how the dogs are helping, and why the fight is important. —By Christina Nunez
Just the desire to work with chimpanzees more, the desire to be in the forest, in that kind of environment. I’d done a lot of traveling in the past, and a lot of camping in different forests and different types of habitats around the world. But one that was just totally mysterious, still, was the Congo rainforest. It’s one of those places where there’s no real guidebook for it. So it was super enticing to go there. I’d thought I would probably stay there for like three months and just keep traveling, but obviously I have ended up staying for quite some time.
I was pre-med in college. I thought I was going to go backpack for a year or two and then go to medical school. But during that year or two, about two years into it, is when I got to the Congo and the forest, and it only took me a month of being in the forest to come back to my real calling. I grew up loving animals. I was supposed to do this.
It probably started four or five years ago, as I was looking for all kinds of ways of detecting illegal wildlife products.
Dogs have a whole bunch of different advantages. One of them is that, right off the bat, they’re a little bit menacing. They intimidate people—if you’re in a poachers’ camp, for instance. But the other side of that is that they’re really gentle, so with some people who like dogs, we can build the social aspect a little bit.
Most importantly, they have these amazing noses. They can do what it would take humans forever to do. They can search huge areas, and we’ve trained ours to detect ivory, bushmeat, pangolin scales, ammunition, firearms, leopard skins. They’ve detected all that stuff in real environments at this point. So it’s been super, super interesting and very rewarding.
We see a lot of dead animals all the time, so it’s nice to actually have that kind of communication with live animals as well.
Photograph by Arthur Sniegon
Yes. They’re, like, superheroes. I’m really happy with the fact that the project is looking like it’s in a position of sustainability. We really started it out of nothing. The dogs slept at my house the first night. ... Now they do all these cool missions [through Brazzaville-based PALF (Project for the Application of Law for Fauna), which is part of EAGLE and which Honig also helped start in 2010].
We retain full management control over the dogs as well, so even though they can be on government-led missions or have governmental handlers, we retain the management control. That’s been a critical thing, so we can have our people on the ground while the dogs are doing what they’re good at. Then we can do what we’re good at, which is the anti-corruption side of things. As soon as the dogs hit something, instead of giving it right back or some official taking a bribe, we can intervene right there.
A lot of the focus these days is on iconic animals like elephants or rhinos or chimpanzees or gorillas, but there’s also a lot of illegal wildlife trade happening with partially protected species like duikers, parrots, monkeys—so many things that live in the forest. As time progressed in the Congo, it was nice to use the dogs to address that as well.
Whether it’s through establishing a protected area or though putting a trafficker in jail, if you can help an elephant live an extra day, that’s already something that any being on this planet would choose. I guess fighting for sustainability is setting a really high goal. In a lot of places, biodiversity is being reduced to islands. But anything that’s inside of those islands is still going to want to stay alive, and any day that you provide them is valuable. There’s a huge amount of hope just there.
It’s not hope, really. It’s just a fact. Hope is almost implying that I can’t do something about it. I’m not “hopeful.” I think there’s obviously some serious stuff happening in this world that makes it very difficult for biodiversity, but there are also definitely, definitely solutions. Here and there, you get pockets of success stories, and it’s really amazing to see. They just need to be replicated or invented.
We had one particularly virulent international ivory trafficker in the Congo, and we got him sentenced to prison along with a number of his associates. Then we managed to get him and six other criminals involved in the ivory trade transferred to a higher security prison. Every day that some of those guys are in prison, some wildlife is surviving another day.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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