They risk lives and limbs to set traps for trafficking syndicates.
With so many animals in danger and so many hardened criminals in the game, no one can blame activist Kartick Satyanarayan for turning a bit James Bond when he goes undercover to trap smugglers. Just about everything in a spy's bag of tricks is employed, from hidden cameras to disguises. A change in facial hair, a limp, a cane and a paunch made with a pillow are some of the tactics used by Mr. Satyanarayan, who already has a bullet wound to show for the risks he faces. He knows how to greet a man with a hug and check to see if he's armed and how to dribble betel juice down his chin in just the right way to make sure he does not arouse suspicion. Mr. Satyanarayan, 36, is the co-founder of Wildlife SOS, a New Delhi-based animal rights group set up in India in 1998. "The idea came to me when I came to Delhi to work on a New York Zoological Society project on eco-conservation," he says. "I saw the need not just to do re¬search, but to do proactive protection." Wildlife SOS, which is supported by fund-raising as well as other charities and corporations, has built up a network of 24 informants, who are mostly reformed criminals. Whenever an informant comes up with a lead, a decoy is sent in to work with the traffickers until a sting is set up. Mr. Satyanarayan, who is from Bangalore, says he needs his skills in disguise to play the role of a decoy effectively: "I can't afford to be recognised; I have to look the part. Sometimes I am a taxi driv¬er, sometimes a middleman, sometimes a holy man. I have several disguises. "I grow a large beard, or shave it off. Sometimes I walk with a limp, or have a paunch. You have to be worried about being discovered all the time. If you make a mistake, you're finished." Once, the traffickers he was meeting wanted to search him. "I had a hidden camera in a button, linked to a recording device taped to my back. I made my excuses and went to the toilet and hid it in a small, dirty hole. Luckily they didn't discover it, and I picked it up later. It was a close call." About five years ago, Mr Satyanarayan was shot in the leg after being caught be¬tween police and a leopard. "I was trying to rescue a leopard which was let loose by a mob in a furniture shop. We shot it with a tranquilliser gun, and as it ran out towards the police perimeter, one of them panicked and opened fire. If I hadn't dived behind a door, I would have been killed; the leop¬ard was killed," he recounts. Yet he remains prepared to risk his life to protect animals. "It's definitely worth it. It means a lot to me. I think it's the very least I can give back," he says. American film-maker Tim Gorski is another animal rights activist unafraid of going undercover. Mr Gorski, 42, is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and is working on two documentaries about the plight of elephants. Elephants on the Edge looks at animals trafficked into Thailand for the tour¬ist trade, while the other, How I Became an Elephant, and are aimed at children. It follows 14-year-old Juliette West from Los Angeles to Thailand, where she meets her hero, Ms. Sangduen "Lek" Chailert, also known as the Elephant Lady, and helps rescue a 35-year-old female elephant from forced breeding and abuse. The film will be out later this year. Mr Gorski's research involves going undercover in Myanmar, but he has less need for disguises. "With a lot of the guys I meet, I just go in as a white guy with a bunch of money and they don't ask questions," he says. "I tell them I am working for a rich man setting up an animal park. I don't need to change my appearance." Depending on the age and sex of the elephant, the prices vary from US$6,000 (S$8,100) to US$25,000. Young females with a good disposition which can work well with people fetch the highest price, says Mr. Gorski. "I do get scared as a lot of these guys are armed. I just keep telling myself I am doing it for the animals. I don't have a death wish. I am disciplined about the risks I take. "The people I meet are not suspicious as they are not doing anything illegal until they try and take the elephant across the border to Thailand," he says. Smuggling an elephant sounds like an impossible task, but Mr Gorski says it is surprisingly easy: "There are so many border access points. You just take some money and pay off the guard, who calls an official and then it's taken across." The demand for elephants in Thailand is high. They are a strong symbol of the country, but it is difficult to get healthy animals as captive breeding is not very successful, he says. The gestation period for an elephant is two years. Following that is a further two years while the mother nurses her young. "So during those four years she can't work, and there is about a 2 per cent birth rate so it's really low," adds Mr Gorski. The elephants are used for tourism, circus-style shows and elephant trekking. There are 13 elephant camps in Chiang Mai alone. "Due to the current political problems in Thailand, tourism is at a standstill, which is a big problem as it costs a lot to upkeep an elephant," says Mr. Gorski. "They become street beggars. The owners take them around tourist hot spots to try and get money so they can feed the elephant, which needs 200kg to 300kg of food such as hay or fruit a day. Even though it's outlawed, these handlers don't know what else to do." Once in Surin, known as Thailand's elephant capital, he saw an old male elephant, with tusks 1.5m long, chained up. "He was not being fed, and when I asked why, I was told they were waiting for the ivory, and as they were Buddhist, they could not kill the elephant, so they were letting him starve to death." Despite an overall confidence in his work, Mr Gorski does question himself: "No one wants to see these films; they are depressing. I sometimes wonder if I am wasting my time, but people have to be exposed to the truth somehow.”