Drori headed for Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Inspired by Dr. Jane Goodall's prediction that chimpanzees were to become extinct within 20 years, he planned to write an article about the illegal trade in bush meat and of young chimps and how it was facilitated by a culture of corruption. Drori planned to end the article with "the light at the end of the tunnel": the NGOs and conservationists who were working to save the chimps. He traveled to the headquarters of the largest NGOs to learn about what they were doing to counter Goodall's prophecy. He was appalled by what he found.
"Instead of finding activists in the frontlines fighting against all odds, I found a self-serving system of 4x4s driving around, big castles, and not a lot of work. People who live with swimming pools and very high-grade conditions and who are very far away from where you'd think they would be," he recounts. Unsatisfied by their answer that giving workshops and seminars was all they could do to save the chimps, Drori was resolved to dig deeper.
He left Yaounde and traveled to the town of Abong-Mbang, where within only a few hours of inquiring at the local market, he was able to set up a meeting with traffickers who wanted to sell a baby chimp and gorilla.
The next morning, Drori arrived at a local hunter's house to see the apes. The hunter, accompanied by a few other men, led him into the kitchen. Drori looked around at the smoke-stained cinderblock walls and ash-covered floor littered with banana peels and beer bottles. In the corner, tied to a log, lay a very young baby chimp. It seemed traumatized. Emotionless. The baby gorilla was nowhere to be found. It had apparently died.
After watching the men taunt the chimp for a short while, Drori left claiming he was undecided about wanting to purchase the ape.
He then went straight to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, located on the outskirts of town. He told them about what he had seen and asked that the men be arrested and the chimp seized, as there are laws protecting chimpanzees, an endangered species. To his disbelief, the men refused to act on the case unless he "motivated" them with pay. To add insult to injury, they told Drori that if he wanted a chimp so bad, they could sell him another one.
Furious, Drori retired to his hotel room for the night. Unable to sleep due to his frustration, he decided to write down everything he was feeling. He wrote about the ills of the developed world, of the NGOs he had visited who had the finances but did not do much work, the system of corruption he had witnessed, and how they were all personalized in the one baby chimp that would most certainly die if he did not save him.
He then began to draft the plans for the type of organization he felt the country needed – a non-profit made up of volunteers and activists who are willing to fight to get the laws applied and to battle corruption. An organization with undercover agents, who with the help of hidden cameras and recorders, infiltrate criminal trafficking rings, gathering evidence and working their way up the hierarchy to target the biggest traffickers, even if they are public officials. An organization that partners with local authorities and police to conduct stings and arrests. An organization with a legal team to represent the cases in the courts. An organization that could conduct follow-ups on criminals and make sure they stayed in jail. An organization that could intercept bribing attempts at all levels. An organization with a media team that would publicize the fight against corruption.
Without knowing it, Drori had just drafted LAGA's blueprint and mission.
The following day, he returned to the hunter's house, this time with a copy of the country's book of law that stated that anyone caught with a protected species, alive or dead, was liable for a fine and up to three years in jail.
Assuming Drori had returned to purchase the chimp, the hunters, sitting at the living room table, were not sure how to react when Drori confronted them. Before the hunters even had a chance to respond, Drori started bluffing, telling the hunters he was part of a new international non-profit and that people were on their way to arrest them. He even pretended to make a phone call to an imaginary headquarters. "This is the time when they got really upset and stressed – and I let them boil in their juices," Drori remembers. Soon after, the hunters agreed to give up the chimp and some information about other illegal hunters if Drori called off the arrest.
He made his way over to the chimp.
"I untied him from the ropes and held my two arms out," Drori recalls, "and he climbed and gave me one big hug and in one second he was transformed from a creature who didn't seem to have feelings to a real baby with emotional needs."
For Drori, this hug would symbolically last a lifetime.
Ofir Drori with a young chimpanzee rescued from the illegal exotic pet trade. (PHOTO:LAGA)