Human Nature project: Stopping illegal wildlife trafficking in Asia

Posted: September 20, 2010 in Reel Change projects

Human Nature is a pilot project that Reel Change hopes to produce with the intent of distributing the series to a major cable network. The goal? Raise awareness about illegal/exotic wildlife trading, poaching, and abuse in Thailand; a known hub that serves as the starting point for global trafficking of exotic species. Below is our story from the pilot we wrapped up earlier in 2010.

HUMAN NATURE PILOT: BEHIND THE SCENES

We are back from Thailand after a very successful shoot. This is our second time in Thailand and it was nice to revisit a country we already know a little bit about. It seemed both natural and human forces had conspired against us in an effort to jeopardize the shoot; as the Eyjafjallajokull volcano spewed mightily, we definitely thought it would hamper our travel plans, and if it wasn’t that, the Redshirts and their agenda certainly would. Thankfully, we were able to bypass both and were whisked away from the airport by Mr. Edwin Wiek himself. The series Human Nature revolves around the life of Edwin, a Dutch, ex-Special Forces soldier that runs the Thailand-based Wildlife Friends Foundation (http:/www.wfft.org).

We knew the shoot would be challenging as our goal was to try and keep up with Edwin and his inhuman daily itinerary. Just before picking us up, Edwin had come back from Cambodia for a wildlife related mission, not before paying his first visit to the States and then going back home to Amsterdam and being stuck cause of the volcano… We were tired just from our meager trans-continental journey which paled in comparison to Edwin’s journey over just the past month.

Our schedule was going to be a full one. A summary of our shoot schedule for 2 weeks:

BEAR CHECKUP TURNS TO BEAR RESCUE

First on our shoot schedule was a normal medical checkup on a Malaysian sunbear that was housed in a small enclosure at a temple. A 3 hour drive was easily hampered by Edwin’s bad 80’s music collection on his iPod. Once we reached the temple, we immediately found the gargantuan bear right at the footsteps of the main entrance. He was fed an improper diet by the Monks (who genuinely cared for the animal). Both his enclosure and improper diet resulted in him being severely obese. Due to the extra fat and calcium in his diet, his nails had grown past the normal length and curled back on his pads causing a severe infection. Edwin’s routine check up mission turned into a rescue. The bear was anesthetized and the vet team went to work, giving him antibiotics, sawing and filing his oversized nails down, pulling them out of the flesh, and cleaning his infected wounds. When the Abbott saw the condition the bear was in and Edwin’s sincere care for the animal, he decided to let Edwin take the bear away from his tiny enclosure and off to Edwin’s reserve. While we were hopeful to bring the bear back with us initially, we never expected the monks to actually comply. This was a great success for our pilot and immediately, work began on transporting him properly back to WFFT. The goal would be to rehabilitate him and eventually release him into the wild. After 12 years of being in a tiny enclosure, it was amazing for us to witness his release into WFFT and his grandiose enclosure. Pics below:

The temple that housed the bear for 12 years ©WFFT

Edwin speaking with the Abbott: ©WFFT

The bear finally anesthetized in his tiny enclosure ©WFFT

Post-op, the bear is carried away to the truck; a 3 hour drive awaits us! ©WFFT

-MEET MEOW!

As if the bear rescue wasn’t enough, our next task was to capture the medical check up of Meow, a large tiger that calls WFFT his home. Little did we know that we would have to enter his enclosure without Meow being anesthetized! Meow has a nervous disorder so his strength isn’t quite like a normal large cat. Edwin went in first and was somehow able to subdue Meow.. We then rolled in with the cameras along with the medical staff. This was unbelievable being so close to an actual tiger. Even in his ill condition, it took 5 adults to fully restrain him as blood samples were being taken. The goal was to capture just another day in the life of the vet staff at WFFT

Meow!

Meow being calmed by Edwin ©WFFT

Success, blood sample taken. ©WFFT

Everybody out, Edwin is the last to let go of Meow ©WFFT

-OFF TO THE RIVER KWAI

Next on our shoot schedule was to go straight to Kanchanaburi near the River Kwai to confront a man Edwin has a personal vendetta with. A poorly run local Zoo employs a staff member to chain 2 leopards to a post near a restaurant, openly displaying the large cats to the public so tourists (most Western) pay and have their picture taken with the large cats. In a busy inconspicuous alley where tourists, locals and ex-pats converge, shopping, eating and touring around, we find the leopards chained to a bedpost right on the outer fringe/doorway of a restaurant. The cats were sleeping and trying to battle the intense afternoon heat. Edwin’s goal was to go in undercover with hidden cameras and collect evidence on this. Edwin also wished to get into an altercation with the owner of leopards and let him throw the first punch so he could use the evidence with the authorities. We were successful in finding the leopard and gathering the evidence.. however Edwin could not fire up an altercation which was rather shocking. The caretaker also proudly displayed a letter authorized by the higher ups in Wildlife administration area who had authorized him to display the leopards to the public. This, according to Edwin was impossible and illegal as well. Edwin nabbed as much evidence as he could and we left, frustrated. This would need further followup as Edwin would have to contact authorities to verify the authorization the leopard-keeper had proudly presented. Unfortunately, this would take some time and we wouldn’t be able to followup with this as our shoot schedule was jam packed and we simply had no time to followup with Edwin.

-CHATUCHAK WEEKND MARKET: HELL ON EARTH

Our first big undercover endeavor. This is one of the largest outdoor markets in Asia; you can pretty much find anything you like; if you are looking for the wildlife variety however, chances are they are highly exotic, endangered and illegal. How do you get to the ‘good stuff’? You go undercover. We suit up Edwin with undercover cameras and send him in on a scout mission. We try to capture b-roll shots of the market inconspicuously, while Edwin does his best tourist impression walking around. The film crew blends in with the crowd and we weren’t concerned about raising suspicion as the market is heavily crowded. Not to mention, the illegal wildlife traders are tucked in quite deep into the market. Immediately, we lose track of Edwin! We have no idea where he is and we never established a meet up point in the first place. We knew Edwin’s undercover cam had a recording life of 25 min and his audio was good for an hour. Knowing Edwin, we knew he would be sticking to the mission of gathering evidence, to bury his way into the market and find a dealer who will allow him to see their prized wares. We hang back, and indulge in some diabetes-inducing Thai iced tea and wait around trying to figure out how to find Edwin. We decide to send one of our crew members back to the car park and wait with the car which seems like the universally logical meetup point. We soon find a sweat covered Edwin and immediately he tells us he hits the mother lode! “Wallabies, great hornbills, sugar gliders, all kinds of predatory birds, its is amazing” he blurts out excitedly. He was able to dig his way in and deal with the traders and pretended to be interested in a great hornbill and a wallaby… We immediately check the footage and find that a lot of it was good but due to some malfunctions (heat, sweat, we’re not sure what) the footage didn’t come out as we wanted. We had to go back in , which was fine because Edwin had planned to really buy them and bring them back to WFFT. It was so hectic at that point that we were all a bit misguided and our minds were running at a 1000mph. We decided to grab lunch and recollect, recharge ourselves (it was bloody hot), recharge our gear, and head back out in 20. We planted the cam on Edwin again, got our stories straight, and headed back out, this time with Edwin to further haggle and seal the deal. We put away all our broadcast type cams and were rolling around with simply one tourist type HD handycam. It was shocking what we saw, any kind of wild birds you want, Siberian husky puppies, predatory birds, all kinds of lizards, and much more to list. We didn’t even recognize some of the species but their level of distress was obvious. It was heartbreaking to say the least, we were wishing for some sort of force to wipe this whole place clean. We knew this series has the opportunity to do just that so we focused on our task at hand. Edwin made contact with them again and started negotiating. We stayed back knowing that his undercover gadgetry would capture it all. We still wanted an exterior shot so we sent one of our crew member there acting as a tourist wi/ a handycam. As he got closer to Edwin, one of the shopkeepers started questioning Edwin if the guy with the camera was affiliated with him. Edwin played it off but their suspicions were raised and they started threatening the cameraman barking “we’ll take care of you soon”. Needless to say, Edwin couldn’t complete the transaction and our cover was blown. We hightailed it out of the market with the evidence on hand. What happens next? You’ll have to wait and see.

KOH SAMUI GIBBON RAID:

We leave Petchaburi and head for the island of Koh Samui. This is where our big mission would be. This is where we would find people standing around busy areas with exotic wildlife so they can encroach unsuspecting tourists for a glamorous photo opportunity. These scoundrels make quite a bit of money every day and have a lot to risk as their endeavor is obviously highly illegal. They are extremely aware of their surrounding and are ready to bolt like greased lightning if they suspect anything unusual (ie. the law).

A days worth of journey by car (we had 2 vehicles, one marked with WFFT logo, emergency lights, cages, and the other was unmarked for undercover work) lead us to our ferry to cross the mainland and head over to the lime-stone wrapped island of Koh Samui. It was a nice respite being on the ocean and away from land and all the hubbub it entails. An hour later we make shore and head for our hotel late into the night. That’s not the end of the night though, our work is only beginning! We send out our crew with 2 volunteers from WFFT to ‘act’ as tourist couples. Edwin couldn’t partake in this particular mission as he has already arrested 2 of the poachers in the past and they clearly recognize him. I hung back with Edwin as we drove around in the unmarked vehicle. As we slowly creep with traffic through the busy street, we see our dispersed undercover agents interacting with the suspects. We hang back and get as much b-roll as we can and then wait for the undercover agents to rendezvous at our meetup point. As we made one final pass, our third pass in total through the street, the weirdest thing happened. The suspects who were spread out about 30-50ft apart from each other, saw the car, and they all, in sync, turned away and briskly walked away in the opposing direction via back alleys. They were aware of every car that made its way through the street and our 3rd time passing through was one time too many. After a minute of cursing and some other worldly expletives, we head back to the rendezvous point and pickup our undercover agents happy to learn that they had all successfully completed their mission. Now came the gargantuan effort of arranging a police task force that will act upon our evidence. Sorry, but can’t reveal the ending yet!

So, there’s a brief summary of some of the main parts of the pilot. A lot is lost in this neuron to inter-webs translation but it should give you an idea of what we went through. The heat was unbearable, the team we worked with were the most passionate individuals we have ever met, Thailand was… well, Thailand… a dichotomy in the most pervasive and beautiful sense; where ex-pats and Western tourists come to sample Thailand’s open yet illegal sex trade, where the geographic beauty draws you in, where the food is unlike anywhere else, where the locals are some of the friendliest and proudest individuals you will ever meet, and where we can hopefully start producing the series known as Human Nature. More to come, stay tuned.

CLP crew waiting for the sedatives to set in.. for the bears, that is..Just another day at WFFT. ©WFFT

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