by Shazreh Malik
Israeli activist Ofir Drori explored Africa for years as an adventurer and photojournalist, before founding The Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA) in 2003. This NGO, operating in Cameroon, implements wildlife law enforcement, and is the first of its kind in the entire continent.
In 2002, a brave young man ventured out to follow-up on predicted ape extinction, and the combat of those sweating blood to save and protect the endangered species. He, instead, found an empty battlefield. Disappointed and disgruntled, he vowed to make a difference on his own. It began with saving Future – an orphaned young chimpanzee fated to fall victim to an illegal trade by poachers in a remote Cameroonian town. When the authorities failed to act, Drori took it upon himself to become the savior of Future, and of wildlife in general. And just like that, LAGA was born.
LAGA enforces laws that no one bothered following in all of West and Central Africa prior to Drori’s initiative. Its interesting working model employs the use of spies, hidden cameras, and sting operations to root out traffickers of bushmeat, ivory, and pets in Cameroon. They are arrested and prosecuted for their crimes. The members of the NGO ensure a fair trial and conviction, and the results are publicized. So far, the organization has put hundreds of these criminals to justice.
Drori and his friends, including writer and musician David McDannald, keep a video journal of their endeavors with LAGA. They document, on handheld and hidden cameras, their conversations, operations, travels, victories, hardships, and feelings. In 2009, Drori approached David’s brother, Mark McDannald, a filmmaker based in Baltimore, with the video footage. Mark undertook the tremendous task of putting together a vast collection of random recordings into one cohesive film, Ofir – a wildlife crime documentary.
The film captures Drori’s efforts for wildlife conservation, how he builds activism, the lengths he has to go to for that cause, the risks involved, his anger and frustration at the authorities, and his love for the apes he rescues. There is an order in the film of all incidents, thanks to the editing since it was not shot with the intention. But the setting is natural. The feelings portrayed are genuine. There is no script. There is no acting. It’s real life, and a tough one at that.
LAGA is not just a savior of wildlife, but also an enemy of corruption. The NGO fights the network of individuals manipulating the illegal trade of endangered species in Cameroon. These include dealers, businessmen, warlords, and government officials. The members of LAGA are standing against powerful people running organized crime, and they risk their lives everyday against their threats.
Drori sees to it that the animals rescued on these operations are looked after. These victims of wildlife crime are given health care and therapy for recovery from the trauma and mistreatment they have suffered from. He fosters the young apes that have been captured from their habitat, and orphaned in the process, until he can find a more permanent home for them in animal shelters.
Based on their adventures, Drori and David McDannald have co-written The Last Great Ape: A Journey Through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent (2012). A highly-inspiring read, this book reaches deep into Drori’s life as an explorer. It takes the reader on the journey with him, and one can experience the conditions that gradually shape a young man into the devoted activist that goes on to give birth to LAGA. The book provides detailed insight into the project, and serves as a great companion to the film.
LAGA started out as an unconventional NGO. The pioneers – Drori and a few others sympathetic to the cause – had no academic or working knowledge of conservation, nor any capital to run an organization. But they had passion, their love for nature, the nerve to fight a corrupt system, and disappointment at the failure of existing agencies to do so. LAGA serves as a role model for sister organizations in Congo, Central African Republic, Gabon, and Guinea (and counting). Local supporters of LAGA have gained the courage and expertise to become independent activists. They have moved onto other causes, thus founding new organizations.
Ofir Drori has made a difference to the lives of many – human and not-so-human. He is a real-life version of the fictional protagonist that goes against all odds to achieve his end. His efforts deserve an audience in the 60-minute documentary film rightly so named after him. Ofir will be playing at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival (STIFF) on May 4 at The Grand Illusion Cinema. You can stay current and support LAGA’s efforts via twitter facebook & their website.