SARANAC LAKE - A film based on a project led by the Wildlife Conservation Society's office in Saranac Lake won the Merit Award for Critical Message in the International Wildlife Film Festival held this week in Missoula, Mont.
Saranac Lake scientist Heidi Kretser was scheduled to accept the award Friday night on behalf of WCS for the movie, "Caught in the Crosshairs." Kretser served as the project leader and scientific advisor for the video. Fellow WCS employee Natalie Cash, who is based in New York City, was the senior producer. It is narrated by actor-director Edward Norton, who is the United Nations goodwill ambassador for biodiversity.
"Caught in the Crosshairs" is an outreach video made by WCS aimed at educating military personnel about the illegal wildlife trade that occurs in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kretser said military personnel sometimes buy furs and other items from rare and endangered species while serving oversees. In many cases, those purchasing the items from endangered items have no idea that what they are doing is illegal or from endangered species. Most of the time, they do so "because it's a cool souvenir to bring back to friends and family," Kretser said.
Dave Lawson, right, country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Afghanistan, trains military police to watch out for illegal wildlife items at a market at Camp Eggers in Afghanistan.
(Photo — Natalie Cash, WCS)
Snow leopards are one of nine cat species — four of them listed by the U.S. as endangered — that inhabit Afghanistan. Recent field work suggests the population may be between 100 and 200 snow leopards in Afghanistan.
(Photo — Julie Maher, WCS)
(Photo — Andy Keal)
"Most of them are, on average, 18 to 26 years old, so they don't really have a good sense of the issue, especially because the products are available on the bases," she said. "There's no way for them to know."
Kretser said she works with fellow WCS employees in Afghanistan but has not traveled there. WCS does not have a presence in Iraq and there is less focus there.
Since being made aware of the issue, the U.S. military has been a willing partner in combating the illegal wildlife trade. WCS's education initiative, including the film, has received support and close to $250,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Defense's Legacy Program.
"They were very cooperative," said John Calvelli, executive vice president of public affairs for WCS in New York City. "They realized that wildlife trade is just another way of illegally obtaining funding, and where does that money wind up? In the hands of people that are going to hurt American interests and potentially even hurt our soldiers. So they saw that we collectively needed to do something about this problem. So they were very cooperative, very supportive, and obviously, we couldn't have done it without them."
Many of the wildlife products that end up on bases in Afghanistan and Iraq are from locally or globally threatened or endangered species such as snow leopard, Eurasian wolf and Asiatic black bear.
The purchase and transport of such products violates military regulations, U.S. laws such as the Endangered Species Act, national laws of Afghanistan, and obligations to international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Military personnel and affiliates stationed overseas have significant buying power that influences local markets - including driving the demand for wildlife products. By demonstrating this cause-and-effect relationship to military personnel, the video looks to end demand for these products and therefore, the incentive for dealers to sell them and support poaching.
The video also alerts viewers to other dangers of purchasing and transporting illegal wildlife products. These include threats associated with zoonotic disease (pathogens that occur in wildlife that are potentially transmissible to people), the depletion of scarce and/or culturally significant natural resources, and the inadvertent support of organized crime.
The video is actually part of a larger education program on the subject that WCS has been involved with since 2007, after WCS employees first noticed illegal wildlife items for sale at military bases in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Part of the program calls for Kretser to attend "Safety Day" each year at Fort Drum, an Army base near Watertown, to promote awareness about the threats associated with the purchase of illegal wildlife products.
And it was at Fort Drum that Kretser began to get a bigger sense of the problem. In June 2008, Kretser conducted a survey of 395 soldiers at Fort Drum, which revealed that more than 40 percent of them had purchased or seen someone else in the military purchase products made from animals while stationed overseas.
Since the program started, Kretser said WCS has seen a reduction in this kind of trade on military bases in Afghanistan. A big part of that is that military police are now more aware and proactive in stopping the illegal wildlife items that are sometimes sold at fairs on the U.S. bases.
"Our (Afghanistan) country director went back to a number of the bases ... and he only found a couple of items," Kretser said. "In 2008 there (were) probably 300 items on one base at one bazaar that were not supposed to be there."
A screening of "Caught in the Crosshairs" was also scheduled for Friday night in Montana following the awards ceremony during which paleontologist Richard Leakey was slated to receive a lifetime achievement award. Leakey is known for finding a 1.6 million-year-old Homo erectus skeleton and a 2.5 million-year-old skull. He also successfully fought against elephant poaching in Kenya in the 1980s.
Contact Mike Lynch at 518-891-2600 ext. 28 or firstname.lastname@example.org.