A year ago I found myself on an assignment unlike any other I've done. I was in China for my next film, a documentary titled "The Heist" about a mass extinction event, and part of the filing process included helping to bust one of the biggest dealers of endangered species on the planet.
The main problem of this story is the people in the illegal wildlife trade don't like to be filmed, and hidden cameras are illegal in China. If you get caught with one you go to jail. The airport policemen were now marching towards me with a bag I had checked earlier at the ticket. They found me in the middle of the airport and were coming at me with the luggage full of all our hidden camera equipment. Nearly all our cameras were designed for covert work, tools of the trade in what has become our line of work.
Our last film, "The Cove," is about a secret lagoon in Taiji, Japan, where every year thousands of dolphins are herded and captured for the captive dolphin trade. An awful fate awaits those not cute enough to be selected to do tricks for the SeaWorlds of the world. We broke into the site, climbing over barbed wire fences, getting past guards, motion sensors and guard dogs, using military grade thermal imaging equipment, cameras hidden in fake rocks, remote controlled drones, underwater cameras and hydrophones planted by world champion free divers. My team blew the lid on that little town with a dark secret, "a dolphins worst nightmare," and the film has been drawing worldwide attention to the now infamous cove and the captivity trade ever since.
The policeman held up my luggage and asked, "Yours?" What could I say? My name was on it, my real name and more than likely all my fingerprints as well. Adrenaline raced through my veins and I thought, "How did I get myself in a mess like this." I run a non-profit organization called the Oceanic Preservation Society, but what we do is probably better described by our acronym, OPS. We're not a normal film crew. We have a director of covert operations, Charles Hambleton, who is well versed in the dark arts of getting in places you're not supposed to be. Heather Rally is a veterinary student by day and an undercover operative by night who helped us bust a sushi restaurant selling endangered whale meat in Santa Monica. Shawn Heinrichs, one of our guides through the underbelly of the extinction trade had seen the guards coming and did what we were all instructed to do, fade into the crowd. Our other guide, Paul Hilton, a Greenpeace activist, didn't want to be seen with us at that point. Let's just say if immigration tagged him, none of us were getting into the country.
Our arsenal of covert gear included half a dozen button-hole cameras, cameras in water bottles, fake identity cards, and business cards. Our organization's mission statement of "creating media to inspire people to save the oceans" probably wasn't going to go over well with the Chinese police if they discovered we were entering with fake IDs under the guise of a culinary tour.
"Open the bag," the policeman commanded. He pulled out one of the batteries in a tangle of buttonhole cameras and held it up. "Illegal," he said. My head dropped. I should have known that the X-Ray scanners would pick up the cameras. "Batteries need to be wrapped up by themselves. Lithium batteries are very dangerous, could start a fire." He then pulled out a bag full of ziplocks out of his pocket and the police began wrapping the batteries up individually to prevent a fire. Whew.
Paul Hilton and his colleague Shawn Heinrichs are photographers who travel together all over the world to expose the illegal and should-be illegal wildlife trade. Some of their work takes them to the darkest most forbidden places on the planet. They told me that if I wanted to grasp the unimaginable scale of the illegal wildlife trade my team needed to go with them to China where just about everything in the world you could imagine was for sale. Elephant carvings, rhino horn, endangered birds, snakes, lizards, turtles, tortoises, and of particular interest, one of the biggest shark oil traders in the world, a Mr. Li of PuQi in Zhejiang province.
Mr. Li was operating an epic scale operation to exploit endangered species of sharks. At the time, there were only three species of sharks protected by CITES, the international body that protects endangered species of flora and fauna. Mr. Li could sell us drums of oil from all three: basking sharks, great whites and whale sharks. Paul and Shawn were led to Mr. Li by our Chinese interpreter, a researcher who tagged sharks to understand their migration patterns, only to notice that her field subjects were all disappearing off the east coast of China near Mr. Li's operation.
Paul and another colleague, Alex Hofford, who together form the group WildLifeRisk, had filmed and scouted Li's operation a year earlier and discovered workers feverishly turning the carcasses of the world's largest endangered fish into oil. But they couldn't figure out an angle to bust the dealer. Paul and Shawn concocted a scheme where I, being the oldest of the group, would pose as a shark oil buyer. Heather, being a veterinary student with a background in animal medicine, would act as our science advisor concerned with purity of the oil. Shawn and Charles would be my business associates, and our Chinese shark researcher, who must remain anonymous, would be the interpreter. Paul, knowing some of the language, would return from his previous visit as the middleman who stood to make a cut of the profits if he put together the deal.
"I know nothing about the shark oil trade," I pleaded. Paul, an Australian with a disarming smile, said, "Never mind that mate, just be mean and try get the lowest price."
At our first meeting we met with a family member who insisted on taking us to a feast of various sea creatures including shark. Paul and Shawn have spent a large part of their lives trying to save sharks, many of which are facing severe decline and some cases are near extinction. We were all vegetarians and vegans except for Charles -- he had to eat enough for the five of us. After lunch we finally got to meet the family kingpin, Mr. Li.
He bragged that he has been killing and processing 600 whale sharks a year. This was the largest wholesale slaughter of sharks on the planet, and we were inside, hidden cameras rolling. When we asked him where he has been selling products, he admitted that he has been smuggling endangered sharks to Italy. Mr. Li said that he could evade the scrutiny of customs by mislabeling the shark oil as fish oil and the meat as another kind of fish. We had several cameras rolling on Mr. Li and as he told us that he could help us illegally export product overseas, you could tell he was a seasoned pro.
Change can happen slowly, but it does happen. While in China we learned that The Hump, the Santa Monica restaurant that we had busted four years earlier for selling meat from an endangered Sei whale, was finally going to trial. The sushi chef was facing 70 years in jail and the owner was facing a possible two and half million-dollar fine. A few months after our China trip Shawn and Paul, after years of work, got the most beautiful and graceful animal in the world, the manta ray, listed as an endangered species. Shawn's footage of finned sharks in a WildAid commercial has been seen by some two billion people and is attributed to helping reduce the demand for shark fins for soup by some 50 percent.
We're hoping that by bringing attention to Mr. Li's operation that China will close down his operation and others in the region like his before we lose creatures that have been on this planet for 450 million years. And the problem is not just in Asia, the U.S. is the second largest destination market for illegally trafficked wildlife in the world.
It's hard to imagine that humans can have such a profound effect on the planet on such a scale but in a few short decades we exterminated passenger pigeons that once darkened the sky with their migration. Once shot for animal feed, the last one died in 1914. Like many other species, it's now only found stuffed in a museum.
What we need to do is get people to become aware that right now we are going through a mass extinction event like the earth hasn't seen since an asteroid hit the planet 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. Scientists now say we may be losing 30,000 species a year. In a healthy ecosystem we should lose on average three species a year and another three should be replacing them.
This current extinction event is called the Anthropocene, "The Age of Man." Michael Novacek, provost of the American Museum of Natural History says that "this time, humanity is the asteroid."
The irony is that our own species name, homo sapiens, means "wise humans." It's time that we start living up to our name.