London Conference to Tackle Illegal Wildlife Trade

The experience of a National Geographic investigative reporter will add valuable insight to an event addressing wildlife crime.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 8 Oct 2018, 22:46 BST
Rachael Bale, National Geographic wildlife trade investigative reporter and co-director of the animals desk. Portrait by ...
Rachael Bale, National Geographic wildlife trade investigative reporter and co-director of the animals desk. Portrait by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic
Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

A National Geographic investigative reporter will be a key speaker at a high level conference in London this evening, convened to address the illegal wildlife trade.

‘Evidence to Action: Research to Address the Illegal Wildlife Trade’ will take place at the Zoological Society of London on 9 October.

The event will serve as a prelude to a major Heads of Government conference hosted by the UK Government on 11-12 October, which aims to build coalitions between sectors, such as researchers, NGOs, civil society (including the media) and governments in order to tackle the illegal wildlife trade.

At Evidence to Action, Rachael Bale, a National Geographic Society wildlife trade investigative reporter and co-editorial director of National Geographic's animals desk, will address how the media reports on the illegal wildlife trade.

Bale reports on wildlife crime and exploitation for the series Wildlife Watch and National Geographic magazine.

She will be speaking in a session focused on bridging the gap between researchers, local communities and the media. This is a controversial area, with the media often accused of either failing to understand or mis-portraying the perspective of local communities caught up in the illegal wildlife trade. The session will also discuss the influence of NGOs and advocacy groups in wildlife reporting.

We caught up with Rachael Bale before she flew from Washington DC to London for ‘Evidence to Action’.


NG: How do you assess the reporting of the role of local communities in the illegal wildlife trade?

RB: “I think it’s something we can all do better. I think local communities are often over-looked. Responsible reporting always tries to get their perspective in. One thing I always try to do is be very clear in stories about poaching about what the possible motivations for the poachers are.”

NG: From your experience, what are these motivations?

RB: “Most poachers or illegal hunters are people who are really desperate to feed their families. Their community may have no other way for them to make money, so that’s what you do; you kill a protected animal to eat it yourself, or you kill a protected animal to sell up the trade chain, because it’s going to give you money to eat and send your kids to school. It’s hard to fault somebody for that.”

NG: How well understood is this state of affairs within the global community?

RB: “I have found that no matter what kind of story we write, when it goes on social media or in front of an audience one of the most common reactions is, ‘poach the poachers.’ I understand the impulse to say that, but it’s not helpful feedback."

The power of a compelling campaign: Rachael Bale's investigative report for National Geographic helped to achieve a valuable change in position by TripAdvisor.

What kind of influence can investigative journalism have on wildlife crime?

"Our number one goal on Wildlife Watch is to do stories that have impact. One of my early stories for National Geographic was about how TripAdvisor and its subsidiary company Viator were promoting and selling tickets to wildllife tourist attractions that weren’t good for the animals, like elephant rides or having a selfie taken with a tiger.

I wrote about it and called TripAdvisor and they gave the usual line about how they were doing the right thing.

And a couple of months later they made this big announcement that they would no longer sell tickets to attractions that allowed hands-on interactions with wildlife and that they were developing an education portal that would help people who went on their website to decide and understand what makes a responsible tourist attraction versus a problematic one."

As an investigative journalist, how do you navigate between the competing interests of NGOs and advocacy groups?

“Because there aren’t that many people in the media covering illegal wildlife trade there are way more stories to do, things to expose, news to share than the media has resources to cover. One of our biggest challenges is to look at all the information coming at us, not just from NGOs and advocacy groups, but also new research from scientists, and decide which of these things is the most important, which threat is most real, which research is most significant. Personally, I always make sure I can get hold of the people who actually wrote a report and provided the information in it, rather than speaking to the campaign manager, although that can be really hard.

I have a couple of really trusted sources who, if I don’t have a clear understanding of something, I can go to and ask what is your gut reaction to this, and they will be straight with me.”

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