Cutting-edge conservationists

By LEONG SIOK HUIPictures courtesy of WildAid

Combating the often-shady wildlife trade calls for a great deal of guts, ingenuity and proactive action. StarWeekend finds out how nature conservation group WildAid’s dynamic and hard-line style paves the way in wildlife protection. 

Steve Galster, one of the founders of WildAid.

It was like a scene straight out of mafia drama The Sopranos and spy series Alias, but played for real, featuring a Chinese underworld boss with a fleet of Mercedes-Benzs, armed goons, sexy molls and a host of military officials on his pay-roll.  

His business? Smuggling rhino horns and tiger bones for the lucrative Chinese medicine market. This was China in the early 1990s. 

“At the time, China and Taiwan claimed there was no illegal rhino trade,” said environmental detective Steve Galster. “No action was taken. In 100 years, the rhino population had shrunk by about 95%.”  

Posing as a rich South African buyer, Galster traced the syndicate from Zimbabwe to Taiwan and found himself in Guangzhou, China. Armed with a suitcase bulging with dollars and rigged with a hidden camera, Galster and his “wife” (a Taiwanese investigator) met the big boss and were escorted to a warehouse.  

“There were sacks full of rhino horns sticking out. About nine metric tons of them,” said Galster, who filmed the scene as he “checked” the goods.  

“I told them, ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you and we’ll make a deal’. Then we just got the hell out of there.”  

Weeks later, the tape and 60 pages of transcript were presented at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting. Cites is a UN treaty organisation that regulates wildlife traffic.  

An aloewood tree that has been “butchered”.

As a result, the US government threatened to impose trade sanctions on China. The Chinese authorities reacted by storming the warehouse and burning the rhino horns in a live broadcast. In 1993, China declared a ban on all rhino horn trading and possession, legal or otherwise. 

Six years later, Galster, together with Suwanna Gauntlett, Peter Knights and Steve Trent, founded WildAid, a nature conservation outfit that works with governments, communities and NGOs worldwide to fight illegal wildlife trade and protect natural habitats.  

WildAid helps hunt down poachers, exposes and eradicates black-market trafficking, and uses public awareness campaigns to stop the consumption of exotic plants and animals.  

WildAid runs on a lean budget of just US$5mil (RM19mil) a year (compared to World Wide Fund for Nature’s several hundred million dollars), with contributions from private donors and institutional grants. With small offices in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, London and San Francisco, WildAid channels 100% of its public donations into field programmes in countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Russia and Ecuador.  

Based in Bangkok, Galster, the organisation’s Asia regional director, oversees a 40-strong staff in South-East Asia comprising activists, undercover investigators, law enforcement officers and administrators. In 1999, WildAid helped the Thai government set up the South-East Asia Environmental Law Enforcement Training Centre in Khao Yai National Park.  

21st century rangers 

“Our idea is to train everybody in the park to do everything – sort of like creating the renaissance 21st century rangers,” said Galster, 43, a Wisconsin native, during an interview at a recent Cites meeting in Bangkok. Rangers learn to patrol the park and protect it from poachers, and keep an eye on wildlife population and movement.  

Wild animal parts being sold openly at Mong-la market in Myanmar.

“Wildlife monitoring is not just studying animals to death; info should be used to find out where the animals are, what the trends are, and how to use the info to protect them and the trees,” said Galster.  

WildAid also tries to involve the communities near the park.  

“They are the ones who are being recruited by wildlife poachers because of poverty and alienation. We need to focus on community outreach work and convince them to stop coming in,” said Galster.  

WildAid literally adopts these villages, putting in some money and introducing alternative sources of income like growing flowers and mushrooms for commercial use. “It’s not just about education. These people need to work today to feed their families,” said Galster.  

Most professional poachers make good foresters, Galster pointed out. These poachers know the park, rangers and animal movements and species locations like the back of their hands. WildAid works at bringing poachers to their side. Since the centre was set up, poaching in the area has been reduced by 70%.  

However, Galster admits that the outreach programme is not 100% foolproof. In leaner times, some former poachers fall back on harvesting agarwood (high-quality agarwood or gaharu may fetch over US$1,000/RM38,000 a kg)  

“But it works extremely well with the women. Given a choice, they’d rather be near the kids and watch over the home instead of scrounging in the forest,” said Galster.  

WildAid works and exchanges intelligence with other conservation outfits who also sponsor undercover investigations in Thailand. Aside from helping to nab the culprits, footages of wildlife trafficking they obtain is useful in meetings like Cites’ to provoke action, Galster said. 

A display of bear paws seized from poachers in Bangbuathong, Thailand.

“Here’s a tiger being smuggled across from Thailand into Cambodia. You guys are sitting here talking about all the biological studies in bureaucratic language. Why don’t you do something about this?” said Galster in his typical blunt manner. “You challenge them, use visuals to wake them and stir them into action.”  

Provocative ads 

Other WildAid campaigns, notably their shark advertisements, have also enjoyed a measure of success. Following their in-your-face ads against shark’s fin consumption in Thai newspapers in 2001, a group of restaurants filed a lawsuit against WildAid to recover what they claimed were US$3mil in losses caused by the ads. (The Thai court ruled the case in WildAid’s favour this year.)  

Apparently, shark’s fin consumption dropped 30% following the ads, and WildAid also managed to lobby Cites to get whale sharks listed as a protected species. You may have seen some of WildAid’s commercials featuring models and celebrities, including Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, who drive home the message that “When the buying stops, the killing can too.” 

Despite their often unusual approach, WildAid complements other NGOs in the field. The group combine forces with WWF to train rangers in Vietnam and Cambodia, for example, and has teamed up with the World Conservation Society (WCS), an organisation that focuses on scientific studies. Drawing from their experience working with ex-army, police and multinational training teams, WildAid is able to lend law enforcement support to other research-based NGOs. 

Although they have enjoyed success in fighting illegal trading in wildlife, Galster admitted that it is an uphill fight. “It all really comes down to corruption and the arrogance of high-level officials who don’t think there’s anything in it for them,” said Galster.  

“It’s not true the government doesn’t have enough funds. They just don’t put it into the ministry of environment or whoever’s running the park. Anybody who is concerned about clean air, water, food security and human migration, knows that the environment is the single most important factor next to (the disruption caused by) occasional war.  

“The war with the environment is constant. Degrading ecosystems shove people into urban areas and put pressure on the areas, increasing instability, especially in trans-boundary areas.”  

“It’s a matter of national security, and governments have to recognise it and place nature conservation high on their political agenda,” Galster argued 

Cease to exist 

Galster said WildAid doesn’t plan on sticking around for the long haul. Once they have helped countries with training support and funds, they will bow out and let the respective governments take over.  

“We want to fold in 25 years and not exist. Our goal is to decimate illegal wildlife trade globally and reduce it by 90%. Otherwise we’re afraid we’ll become like other organisations where our first objective becomes paying rent and salaries, and after that, oh yeah, let’s give some to the programme,” said Galster with a grin.  

For more information on WildAid and to find out what you can do, visit  

Successes of WildAid 

WildAid has: 

  • Saved over 17,000 animals directly from the hands of poachers in Cambodia. 

  • Reduced poaching in key parks in Asia by up to 70%. 

  • Reduced the number of Phnom Penh restaurants serving illegal wildlife dishes by over 75% . 

  • Helped the Russian government save the Siberian tiger from the brink of extinction. 



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