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Conservationists in peril: Scientists, campaigners risk their lives for their work

Toward the end of 2014, Tanya Rosen, a former New York-based international lawyer, found herself being followed by a car while walking back to her apartment in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.

“It was going very slow, and at some point, I stopped and pretended to look at my phone,” Rosen recalls. “And then I noticed the car had stopped, too.”

Rosen began walking again, faster this time, but then a man got out of the car and pointed a gun at her. “At that point, I thought I had to get out of there, and I just ran. I have no idea if he intended to shoot — I want to think he did it [only] to scare me.”

Having given up her work as a lawyer after witnessing the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, Rosen was studying snow leopards for the big cat group Panthera at the time of this incident. Her work involved supporting conservancy groups that were trying to run sustainable trophy hunting of markhor, native wild goats; a healthy population of them is necessary for a healthy population of snow leopards.

But groups of illegal hunters, including rich and influential people from Russia, wanted to take more markhor than allowed under the quota system, and Rosen’s support for the conservancies was getting in their way.

Soon after being confronted by the gunman, Rosen received the first of a number of threatening phone calls. “It was the same person speaking, and he was saying things like, ‘You were running really fast, but next time you won’t be so lucky.’”

It wasn’t the first time that year that Rosen had found her work as a big cat conservationist landing her in hot water, and having already received an offer from the government of neighboring Kyrgyzstan to study snow leopards there, she left Tajikistan. “I needed a break from the Tajik drama,” she says now.

Big cat scientist and conservationist Tanya Rosen’s (center) work in Tajikistan led her to work in the M-Sayod Conservancy which protects species such as markhor sheep and snow leopards. Image courtesy Tanya Rosen.

Geopolitical and regional dangers

Not all wildlife scientists in recent years have been so lucky. At the beginning of 2018, seven men and two women working on the conservation of Asiatic cheetahs in Iran — the only place where this subspecies still survives — were arrested by the country’s Revolutionary Guard.

One man, Kavous Seyed Emami, died shortly afterward in prison (with the authorities saying he killed himself, a claim disputed by his family), while the other eight were last year sentenced to four to 10 years in prison.

Their crime? They were accused of “spying” on military installations with camera traps they were using to monitor the elusive and very rare cheetahs. The conservation community rallied to their colleagues’ cause, saying you can’t use remote digital cameras to illegally gain military intelligence, even if you wanted to. But to no avail.

Rosen also nearly ran into trouble with the Tajik authorities over her plan, which had been approved by the government, to fit snow leopards with satellite-tracked collars. She was interrogated by shadowy secret service officials every day for 10 days, though she never felt her life or liberty were at risk.

“They were convinced that the collars had cameras on them, and those cameras would be able to record activity along the border with Afghanistan, where we were going to be working,” Rosen says. Put another way, it seems the Tajik secret service was worried that Rosen was going to use the snow leopards to spy on the Tajik-Afghan border.

“It was laughable,” Rosen agrees. “I felt exhausted and annoyed that I couldn’t walk away, but I never felt they would throw me in jail.”

Stories from the global south

Carlos Zorrilla has feared going to prison — and worse — on a number of occasions. Originally from Cuba, Zorrilla has lived on a small cloud forest reserve in the western cordillera of the Andes in Ecuador for more than 40 years, an area prized by mining companies for its deposits of copper and even gold.

For 25 years, Zorrilla has been organizing local people to resist the companies, which he fears will destroy both the environment and the community. In 1995, he helped set up DECOIN (Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag), and as a result, he has become a major irritant to the mining companies. On one occasion, he had to go into hiding to escape possible incarceration over trumped-up charges, and on another he was accused by the country’s president of being an enemy of the state.

The Andean headwaters of the Amazon basin are a current target for small hydropower expansion, with projects being developed in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. Scientists argue that an understanding of watershed-scale impacts of multiple dams is urgently needed. Photo by Rhett A Butler / Mongabay

The second instance took place in 2013, when during an address by then-President Rafael Correa about protests against an expansion of the country’s oil extraction program, Zorrilla was singled out for writing a manual to help community groups stand up to mining and oil companies in their areas.

“Correa needed a scapegoat, to say that anybody who was opposed to mining was an eco-terrorist,” Zorrilla says. “He paid somebody to make a video, to say this manual had all these tactics that were violent and unethical — which isn’t true — and he showed it to millions of Ecuadorians.

“Amnesty International called me and asked if I needed support, and I did, because I felt threatened. At that time, Correa was popular, so I went to Quito and hid for a while at a friend’s house.”

On the previous occasion, Zorrilla’s farm was raided by a large group of policemen. After a tip-off from a neighbor, he had literally minutes to leave his house and escape into the forest before they arrived; they later planted drugs and a gun in his house.

“I was told a mining company had put a price on my head,” he says. An insider at the company told him that he would have been killed had he gone to jail. In the end, the charges against him were thrown out.

Zorrilla hasn’t had any trouble for a few years, but the experiences still affect him. “I never sleep the whole night through, though I’m not the only activist who feels like that,” he says. “I have a machete close to my bed, but if they are going to get me, there’s not much I can do. But because I’m a public figure, they would have to be really careful about how they do it.”

Threats of detention

Like Zorrilla, Russian bat scientist Suren Gazaryan also faced imprisonment, and feared being sent to a penal colony, after he stood up to the authorities who were deforesting in Sochi National Park in the Western Caucasus in southwest Russia to make way for roads, tourism-related infrastructure and illegal palaces for the Russian elite, including Vladimir Putin, all for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Gazaryan and another scientist were convicted of spraying graffiti on the fence of a regional governor’s palace, a charge he denies. He had no idea at the time, he says now, that his environmental campaigning would result in him having to flee his own country.

“The reality turned grim very quickly, because the governor pressed the police to take me into custody,” he says. “Strange things started to happen with my phone — my house was broken into twice and laptops were stolen, and later we also found clear signs that eavesdropping devices had been installed under the pretext of burglary.”

Gazaryan was imprisoned a number of times for short periods, and he was already anticipating that he was unlikely to receive a fair trial. Though not seriously beaten in jail, his mental health started to deteriorate, particularly as he was aware of the effect his case was having on his parents.

Eventually, he had no choice but to flee. “If I had remained, I would have shared the fate of [the other scientist] Zhenya Vitishko — probation officers picked up ridiculous violations of his prescribed regime, and he was given a sentence in a penal colony where he spent two years.”

Gazaryan now lives and works in Bonn, Germany, where he is a project officer for the UNEP/EUROBATS bat conservation program. He has to be careful, he says, not to be seen publicly criticizing the Russian state.

He doesn’t regret taking the action he did, but says it changed little. “Environmental activism is totally suppressed in our region and elsewhere in the country,” he says.

“My life is not ruined, because I am still doing something meaningful for bat conservation,” he adds. “This is incomparable compared with environmental activism, but the Russia of my past has gone.”

The risks of natural wealth

Faith Doherty and Ambrosius Ruwindrijarto were both illegally kidnapped and violently assaulted after they exposed illegal logging in Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo. Photo courtesy EIA.

What are the common themes that hold these conservationists’ stories together? Faith Doherty, a campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), who had her own brush with extreme danger in 2002 after helping to expose illegal logging in Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesian Borneo, says it’s simple. “If the natural resources are worth anything, then there is going to be a problem,” she says.

For a number of years, the U.K.-based campaign group Global Witness has produced an annual report detailing, as far as is known, the deaths of environmental campaigners across the world.

The last one, published in July 2018, recorded 201 deaths linked to such activism, with one in five of these of people opposing agribusiness. There were 40 killings linked to mining, and 23 to logging.

These are excellent and important documents, but they don’t tell the stories of scientists such as Rosen, Gazaryan or those nine conservationists in Iran, who have discovered that even dispassionate scientific endeavor can fall foul of state or commercial interests.

Doherty’s own story is extraordinary. She says that she and a fellow campaigner, Ambrosius Ruwindrijarto, were taken hostage and assaulted by a local logging baron, whom the EIA had named in a report on illegal logging. Ruwindrijarto was severely beaten, and Doherty had all the fingers in her right hand broken, and she feared for both their lives over the course of a number of days.

Nearly 20 years on, Doherty reflects how they were rescued and returned to Jakarta just in time to become the star turns at a World Bank conference being held in Indonesia to mark the first democratic presidential elections since the fall of former dictator Suharto. They talked about the incident in front of the entire new cabinet, she in a plaster cast. “That’s when the illegal logging issue went global,” she says. Shocking stories like hers help to give vital awareness-raising exposure to the real issues.

Renowned field biologist George Schaller, who has worked in some of the world’s most dangerous places, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Iran, says problems can arise almost without warning and because of issues outside of a scientist’s control.

He cites the example of the U.S. trade war with China, in which U.S.-grown soybeans imported into China are now subject to hefty tariffs. That has pushed Chinese importers to source more soybeans from their other major supplier, Brazil. According to research published in the journal Nature earlier this year, this could result in up to 13 million hectares (32 million acres) of the Amazon Basin being deforested so that Brazil can fill the void left by the U.S.

“All of this can suddenly make things difficult to travel in these areas as an American,” Schaller says. “You learn to keep your mouth shut and not talk about political issues. Even though I enjoy working in those countries and have friends there, it gets more difficult. You have to pick your places.”

Local people opposing illegal logging or mining in the places where they live don’t have that option, Doherty points out. “What about the farmer toiling in his rice paddies, and some corrupt businessman wants his land, and just takes it, and he fights back and is killed? Or the community who can’t drink their water because of [the activities of] a mining company, and they fight back and their children are shot?” These people mustn’t be forgotten when we talk about environmental activism, she says.

But how far would she go before she backed down? At one point during the incident with Sugianto, he brought in a TV journalist and ordered her to admit that everything in the EIA report about his uncle was untrue. “There was no way I was ever going to do that, you’d have to pull my teeth out before I did that,” she says.

A logging road cuts through a tropical forest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Carlos Zorrilla, meanwhile, is currently fighting plans by both the world’s largest mining company, BHP, and the world’s largest copper producer, CODELCO, to begin operations within the Intag region. “Talk about David versus Goliath on steroids,” he says.

Despite the risks to him, he says he has never considered backing down. “It’s very difficult to explain. You create a bond with the habitat. When people ask me where I’m from, I’m more likely to say that I’m from the cloud forest than from any country. You become so much a part of it, that you cannot back down.”

About the reporter: James Fair is a wildlife conservation and environmental journalist based in England. You can find him on Twitter at @Jamesfairwild.

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