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Novelizing wildlife crime investigations: Q&A with author Bryan Christy

By April 27, 2021Interview

Bryan Christy. Image: As originally published by Mongabay / Brent Stirton

Rhett A. Butler, Mongabay | April 23, 2021

Read the original story here.

Since his breakthrough book, The Lizard King, and his National Geographic feature on “The Kingpin”, Bryan Christy has established himself as one of the best-known wildlife crime writers. In 2012, Christy’s explosive National Geographic cover story traced elephant ivory as it was trafficked from war zones and conflict areas in Africa to markets in China and beyond.

Christy’s newest project builds on his wildlife crime expertise, but takes it in a more dramatic direction: He’s written a novel. In the Company of Killers tells the story of Tom Klay, an investigative reporter leading a double life as a CIA spy, who travels to the same places where Christy did his investigative work.

Taking a fictional approach gave Christy more latitude to tell a story about wildlife trafficking that reaches people in a different way than his previous approaches.

“After years investigating wildlife crimes around the world, I realized environmental crimes were only part of criminal ecosystems too large to fit into any magazine article or documentary,” Christy told Mongabay. “When power and corruption feel too big to do anything about, it’s the job of storytellers to reframe things in a way that makes sense.”

“It was time to turn from non-fiction to fiction and continue to tell the world’s stories.”

Christy spoke with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler in April 2021.

Mongabay: You have quite a winding career path. How did you get interested in wildlife crime?

Bryan Christy: In my early thirties I left a career as an international lawyer in Washington, DC to pursue my dream to become a writer. My first project was the investigation of organized crime in Philadelphia during the years my uncle had been undercover there for the FBI. That work led to a story for Playboy about the theft and sale of the world’s most valuable coin, which had been stolen from the Philadelphia Mint. Playboy put the story up for a National Magazine Award. I didn’t know what to do next. My uncle, the FBI agent, said, “Do what you care about.” I’d been a lawyer so long I barely knew what that was anymore. He reminded me I’d won a prize in college for a story about my pet python. “Write about that,” he said. I began looking into the reptile world from a criminal perspective, which led to The Lizard King book and “The Kingpin” feature for National Geographic. It all just grew from there.

Mongabay: You’ve now been working on wildlife crime for about a decade. In that time have you noticed any significant changes in the wildlife trade, from a law enforcement standpoint to strategies of criminal networks to demand for certain products?

Bryan Christy: For me there are four basic kinds of illegal wildlife trade: live animals, dead animals, food, and furniture. The live trade is subject to fads. I’m thinking pets—birds, fish, plants, reptiles, monkeys, primates, cats—the list goes on, as you know. Jurassic Park comes out and people buy reptiles. Saving Nemo, they go for tropical fish.

The dead animal trade has fads to some degree—Jaws famously led to a run on shark’s teeth—but mostly it’s about status and long-held totemic views—ivory as status, or as a holy material. Rhino horn as status, as medicine. Dried seahorses, geckoes, orchids… again, the list is endless. The driver tends to be a nation’s economy. As purchasing power increases, the desire for status rises. The eating of endangered or protected species also tends to be a status thing. In some cases, failure to protect species enables consumption that isn’t illegal per se but should be: bluefin tuna, for example.

Lastly, furniture, shorthand for the timber trade. Illegal logging decimates forests across Africa, Asia, and South America. Habitat destruction accelerates the breakdown of ecosystems, the death of species, the spread of disease, increased violence, and on.

Wildlife crime reporting has improved in a number of ways. There’s more of it now as well as a general expectation that a crime story needs a criminal in it to be complete. That hasn’t always been the case. Still, there’s slippage. Too often reporters rely on sympathy rather than dramatic tension, including actual individuals, to frame their narratives. That’s bad storytelling, and it’s less effective. There continues to be inordinate reliance on secondary sources—on NGO and scientific experts, etc.—and not enough first-hand investigation.

It’s been four years since I was last in the field for a magazine story and in that time the world has flipped: facial recognition and invasive spyware are everywhere, especially China. Aggression towards journalists has risen. The denigration of journalism in the United States and the fall of protection for journalists here has lowered the bar everywhere.

We need to publish local journalists more often in international media, something I know Mongabay does, and we need to mentor and foster journalists at home and abroad. Last, we need to mainstream environmental reporting so that it’s not tucked away on some “green page” but is part and parcel of reporting on issues that affect us all.

Mongabay: What would you say is a common misconception or misunderstanding the general public has about the wildlife trade?

Bryan Christy: That it does not affect you. Our global pandemic, which the WHO has said is likely a result of trade in wild animals, offers the most obvious proof that the wildlife trade affects all of us. But even in the course of a pandemic, with almost 3 million people dead, wildlife trade does not appear to have risen in the consciousness of the public or policymakers. What’s terrifying is the one certainty we can take from this pandemic: it will repeat.

Mongabay: Where could efforts to combat the wildlife trade do better? Put another way, do you see obvious gaps or lack of capacity in the efforts to deal with the wildlife trade?

Bryan Christy: We need to give greater support to rangers and conservationists on the ground. That support should be for a range of skills and services, not flashy, and potentially community-damaging, paramilitary operations. We need more attention to court systems. Better resources for prosecutors. Perhaps the single most important advance in U.S. conservation law enforcement was the creation of an environmental crimes section in the U.S. Department of Justice back in the 1970s. Establishing a separate department freed prosecutors from having to choose between natural resource crimes and narcotics, weapons, or mafia-type cases. Law enforcement needs to know its work can have real results, which means prosecutors empowered to take their cases. Judges likewise need reasonable sentencing guidelines. At the moment, low end criminals either get no sentence or a small fine (in most jurisdictions), or decades of time. Both are bad. The latter turns the public against protection.

Beyond law enforcement we need more and better journalism. The kind Mongabay produces. And the Guardian. And National Geographic. We need beautiful documentaries, heartwarming profiles, and gut-wrenching crime stories. All of it.

Mongabay: Your newest project, In the Company of Killers, is fictional. Why a novel?

Bryan Christy: My first love has always been fiction. I was an international lawyer before becoming a journalist, and I was focused on organized crime as a journalist before joining National Geographic. After years investigating wildlife crimes around the world, I realized environmental crimes were only part of criminal ecosystems too large to fit into any magazine article or documentary. When power and corruption feel too big to do anything about, it’s the job of storytellers to reframe things in a way that makes sense. Orwell did that. Upton Sinclair did that. And John Le Carre. It was time to turn from non-fiction to fiction and continue to tell the world’s stories.

Mongabay: How did your real-life investigations inform and influence the storyline?

Bryan Christy: The storyline comes from the same place my criminal investigations came from as a journalist. I looked at a map of the world and asked myself, What is the biggest threat to the people and animals that live there? For National Geographic, the result took me on investigations to Africa and Asia. For In the Company of Killers, my protagonist Tom Klay travels to those same regions as an investigative journalist, and then he comes home, where he discovers the biggest criminal threat of all.

Mongabay: What do you hope people take away from this book?

Bryan Christy: I hope people read it and say, “That was a good story.”