Freeland has launched EndPandemics.Earth to help lower the risk of future pandemics

Freeland, a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating the trafficking of both wildlife and humans worldwide, was founded in 2000. In its 20-year history, the organization has continued to lead worldwide initiatives to end wildlife trafficking and habitat destruction through anti-poaching and anti-logging campaigns. Today, Freeland supports offices in six countries and is a model for employing digital intelligence technology to fight trafficking of wildlife and individuals.

While no one can say exactly how the recent coronavirus outbreak got started, a number of sources suggest that the virus may have crossed over from wildlife to humans in a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, where animals such as bats, snakes, pangolins, and birds are sold.

In a recent interview, however, Steve Galster, who chairs the International Management Committee for Freeland, noted that while uncovering the source and origin of the crossover are important, we should be focusing on the greater threat, which is wildlife trafficking.

Freeland Chairman, Steve Galster, being interviewed by Thai TV networks (Pic: Freeland)
Freeland Chairman, Steve Galster, being interviewed by Thai TV networks (Pic: Freeland)

Pandemics Can Start Anywhere

As Freeland’s End Pandemics YouTube video points out, Zoonotic outbreaks (the crossing over of viruses from animals to humans) are nothing new.

Exploiting wild animals has spawned a host of virus cross-over events in recent times—primates and HIV, Civets and SARS, bats and Ebola. Many sources, including USA Today, suggest the current COVID-19 pandemic was caused by the virus crossing over from pangolins, a scaly mammal whose meat is considered a delicacy in some Asian countries and whose scales, according to a special report, published by Freeland’s Analytical Center Of Excellence On Trafficking, are fetching more than $450 per kilo on the black market.

As Galster points out, however, zoonotic outbreaks aren’t just a China problem. “They’ve happened in West Africa. They’ve happened in Southeast Asia. They could happen anywhere in the world.” So, while pangolins sold illegally in a market in Wuhan may be a key to the COVID-19 crossover, the problem goes beyond wildlife trafficking.

“We’re basically saying: COVID-19 demonstrates that protection of wildlife is good for the protection of people. And if we can just get a ban on commercial trade in wild animals…then we will dramatically reduce the chance of recurrence and the severity of future pandemics.”

Freeland and its global alliance of partners in EndPandemics.Earth has embraced a three-point plan that: 1) ends all commercial trade in wild animals; 2) increases protection of wild habitats; and 3) promotes compassionate, sustainable farming as a means to stop the devastation of wildlife and habitat, thereby reducing the chances of future pandemics from occurring. Given the current crisis, this solution can’t come soon enough.

Freeland—Putting An End To Pandemics

As this is written, data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, shows that more than 11.8 million coronavirus cases have been recorded worldwide. 

This has brought inquiries to Freeland from government officials and law enforcement agencies around the globe as they begin to understand that reducing pandemics starts by ending the commercial sale of any type of wild animal. As Galster points out, “the virus does not care if the animal is legal or illegal.”

In response Freeland launched EndPandemics.Earth as a global campaign to prevent pandemics by “ending commercial trade in wild animals, expanding wild habitat, and protecting livelihoods.” Nearly 30 organizations from around the world have joined the campaign.

“Our name [Freeland] and our vision is a world free of wildlife trafficking and human slavery” Galster begins. “So, we’re basically saying: COVID-19 demonstrates that protection of wildlife is good for the protection of people. And if we can just get a ban on commercial trade in wild animals…then we will dramatically reduce the chance of recurrence and the severity of future pandemics.”

Governments are listening and partners are joining the EndPandemics movement from all over the world. “It’s like a NATO for nature recovery,” Galster said. “It’s a bunch of organizations dotted around the globe—from Colombia and Brazil, to the US, to Europe, Africa, [and] Southeast Asia—who all bring some aspect of what the recovery requires…Instead of competing with each other, [we’re] coming together to get the client from [point] A to Z. In this case, our client is Mother Earth.”

Galster’s vision is working and EndPandemics.Earth now encompasses a broad coalition to shut down trafficking operations and seize their funds to finance anti-trafficking policing and sustainable farming programs to eliminate the need for individuals to poach wildlife for a living.

Wildlife Trafficker 'Kingpin' Boonchai Bach Posing With Elephant Tusks. (Pic: Freeland)
Younger Wildlife Trafficker ‘Kingpin’ Boonchai Bach Posing With Elephant Tusks. (Pic: Freeland)

“We’re mainly excited about [how we can use digital intelligence ] to dig up all the dirty money that’s been made and to put it to good use,” Galster said. And the dollars at stake are substantial. According to the United Nations Environment Program, illegal wildlife trade is estimated to generate $20 to $30 billion a year. But the legal trade, including non-CITES-listed species, [as cited in a recent webinar by former Secretary-General of CITES, John Scanlon], produces some $200 billion a year. And this does not include fisheries!

Tracking The Money and Finding the Criminals

Tracing illicit funds like these has always been challenging, but thanks to today’s digital intelligence technology, finding the money (and the bad guys who harbor it) isn’t as difficult as it used to be.

“I think it [technology] can be the number one solution,” Galster began, “because the whole world is digital now. All of the wildlife trade, legal and illegal, is being done by legally registered companies. It is being tracked through telephones, and computers, and WhatsApp messages, so all of the data is there on the supply chains. That [data] can be used to track virus transmission [and] it can track where the money is…[Our intention] is to stop traffickers in the only place where it really hurts, by freezing or seizing their money…[so] we can drain their fuel tanks to fill ours.”

Cellebrite is playing a key role in these efforts by providing digital intelligence solutions to Freeland, which in turns works with government task forces to find out who’s doing the trafficking and what the supply chain looks like.

Based on data gathered from Cellebrite digital intelligence solutions, Galster’s team has been able to identify vulnerable areas in the supply chain that can send it into a cascading failure when effectively disrupted.

Catching Culprits to Protect Wildlife

In a landmark 2017 case, a Wildlife Quarantine officer was arrested at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport after he was caught concealing 11 kilograms of rhino horn valued at $700,000, which had been smuggled from Africa into Thailand by a Chinese smuggler.

As Galster recalled, “Freeland got a call [from Thai Customs] saying, “We need your help.” So we sent our Cellebrite UFED tech experts to the airport. It was late at night. And they got the phones and were helping the customs and police extract [the data]. One of the phones was Chinese, so there were some challenges of course… I contacted Cellebrite in Singapore. And they responded very quickly and provided technical assistance, which helped crack it.

Based on the information they extracted, [the police] were able to put all three of those people in jail…We were able to tell them that some of the people …were part of a syndicate that we had been tracking for years that we call ‘Hydra.’”

Freeland helped Thai Police identify Boonchai Bach as a Kingpin in the international syndicate, “Hydra”, which is thought to be one of the world’s most destructive wildlife trafficking rings. (Photo: Freeland)

Thai police followed the evidence trail, which ultimately lead them to Boonchai Bach, the suspected financier of the operation and suspected Hydra boss. Bach was arrested but later acquitted when a key witness changed his story and refused to positively identify him in court.

Galster had hoped to bring wildlife agents from all the countries where Hydra was operating together to build one massive case against the syndicate and crush it once and for all, but it was not to be when agencies from several governments he said would remain anonymous balked, and the case was dropped.

However, with the outbreak of COVID-19 and its direct ties to wildlife trafficking (these syndicates are also trafficking pangolins), there is now renewed interest.

“We’re pulling it [the data] back together with those different agencies, and now the Thai Anti-Money Laundering Organization (AMLO) publicly announced they’re opening up a case against that syndicate,” Galster said. “Freeland, including myself and a couple of other people on the team, are going to be witnesses in the case. So we’re going after them again.”

Galster’s goal is not necessarily to put people behind bars, but to seize their assets, which will ultimately cause the demise of the operation and possibly help finance the recovery of wildlife.

Sharing and Analyzing Data  Is The Key To Future Success 

When asked what law enforcement agencies should be doing to get ahead of these kinds of crimes in the future, Galster replied, “We have a program called Counter-Transnational Organized Crime, also known as “C-TOC.”  CTOC convenes and trains law enforcement within a country and across borders to share and analyze data, so that they can fan out and dismantle those supply chains and find the money.”

Cellebrite tools being showcased to global law enforcement (Pic: Freeland)

To summarize the whole wildlife/human encounter/pandemic situation, Galster paraphrased a chilling statistic from an online article written by Brandon Spektor for Live Science.

“There’s 1.6 million viruses out there in Nature waiting to be unleashed if we poke at Mother Nature the wrong way…about 800,000 of which can do some pretty harmful things to people when transmitted the wrong way.”

Today, pangolins and other species can cause major health problems when brought in direct contact with humans. “Like a lot of these other species, they [pangolins] are being delivered by crooks who smuggle them in sneaky ways,” Galster said. “It’s all unregulated [and] it’s all potentially contaminated.

“We need to start looking at not just pangolins but the wildlife markets in general. You’ll see from our pangolin report, the organized crime and the insurgent involvement around pangolin trafficking. We know about COVID-19. I think we need inspection units from the UN like we have for [inspecting] nuclear warfare facilities [to ensure] none of these destructive labs [wildlife markets] are being developed around the world. These wildlife markets are really ticking timebombs.”

Galster looks at wildlife protection as an insurance policy for mankind. “We have not paid the premium for ‘nature protection,’” he said. “Going forward, we need to treat it [protecting wildlife] as an insurance policy or [a pandemic] is going to happen again, and smack us even harder next time.”


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