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Last Updated: Friday, 15 June 2007, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
'Man in black' fights for Cameroon apes
By Francis Ngwa Niba
BBC, Yaounde, Cameroon

Ofir Drori, a 30-year-old, fast-talking Israeli, is a man with a mission - to save endangered animals in Cameroon's rich equatorial forest.

Ofir Drori
Ofir Drori says protecting animals can be dangerous work
Known as "the man in black" because of his sartorial tastes, he slept inside the cage of the first sick chimpanzee he rescued from poachers and nursed it back to life.

He has succeeded in sending scores of wildlife criminals to jail and shows no sign of stopping.

"I arrived in Cameroon four years ago to write an article about the extinction of endangered animals - I still haven't finished that article," he told the BBC News website.

A 1994 wildlife law prohibits the sale or trafficking in endangered animal species including chimpanzees, elephants, gorillas and lions.

Until Mr Drori arrived and created The Last Great Ape Organisation (Laga), nobody had ever been prosecuted for violating that law.

That has all changed now.

An average of two people a month are now either arrested, imprisoned or fined for violating the wildlife law.

'Spy network'

Laga spokesman Gudmia Vincent Mfonfu said that 3,000 gorillas, 400 chimpanzees and 4,000 elephants are killed each year for commercial purposes in Cameroon and neighbouring countries.

Man selling dead monkey on the street
Bush meat is openly for sale across Cameroon
"If repressive measures are not taken to control commercial hunting, we risk losing these animals in 10, 15 years," he said.

Laga uses a nationwide web of "spies" to carry out sting operations, during which suspected wildlife criminals are cornered, arrested and prosecuted.

The "spies" sometimes have to pose as buyers or traffickers to help catch the criminals red-handed so they get enough evidence to use against them in court.

"It is dangerous work sometimes," Mr Drori admits but adds that someone has to do it.

Though a wildlife enforcement agency, Laga still needs the support of the police and officials of the ministry of wildlife and forestry to carry out its mission.

A police officer, who works with the animal rights organisation, says that wildlife criminals are just like any others and sometimes "make silly mistakes".

He adds that some poachers, especially in rural areas, claim they do not know it is against the law to deal in endangered species but he says, smiling, that "ignorance is no defence against the law".

Well prepared

Mr Drori says he has been offered bribes many times by cornered criminals who will do anything to avoid jail.

"We never accept bribes, no matter the amount," he says.

In Israel, we had a river called the river of crocodiles. There are no longer any crocodiles there now
Ofir Drori
Laga recently collaborated with local wildlife and forestry officials to arrest four poachers with six leopard skins.

Grace Mbah, from the wildlife ministry said they would soon be charged.

She says Laga has made a big difference, especially by providing evidence for prosecutions.

"They are doing a wonderful job and I say more power to their elbow."

But not everyone is impressed with the work Mr Drori's wildlife law enforcement outfit is doing, least of all poachers and bush meat traders.

Laga "spies", police officials, and eco-guards have been attacked.

"This is part of the work... you must be able to face risk," said a female "agent" who has twice been attacked by poachers.

Yaounde Housewife Fankem Doris says she will continue buying and eating bush meat whatever happens.

"If it is well prepared, I will eat it," said, explaining that it tastes far better than beef or imported chicken.

She says Laga should stop trying to end an age-old tradition and adds the campaign will never succeed.

Another woman, though, has changed her eating habits.

"I no longer eat bush meat, no matter the type of animal - and that is thanks to Laga."

International network

Those involved in the lucrative ivory trade include high level government officials, Americans and Chinese nationals.

Some are just too big for Laga's "spies" to carry out sting operations to arrest.

A number of military officials have however been arrested for dealing in banned animal species and that could never have happened before Laga was created.

Laga also recently helped dismantle an international network of ivory traffickers that extended from Cameroon to Hong Kong.

"Wildlife criminals are getting sophisticated in their tactics but we are making life very difficult for them," Mr Drori says wryly.

But why did he stop writing about human rights violations across Africa to concentrate on animals rights?

Mr Drori replies with an example from his homeland.

"In Israel, we had a river called the river of crocodiles. There are no longer any crocodiles there now," he says.

"We now take our children there and tell them we used to call this crocodile river but they have since been killed. The same thing will happen to animals in Africa if nobody fights to protect them."

Country profile: Cameroon
27 May 03 |  Country profiles


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