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An epic journey through Africa by a man who fell in love with a magical and disappearing world and then transformed himself into a warrior on the frontline to protect it.
Staging heart-pounding, espionage-style raids, Ofir Drori and his organization, The Last Great Ape (LAGA), have put countless poachers and traffickers of endangered species behind bars, and they have fought back against a Kafkaesque culture of corruption. Before Ofir arrived ...
An epic journey through Africa by a man who fell in love with a magical and disappearing world and then transformed himself into a warrior on the frontline to protect it.
Staging heart-pounding, espionage-style raids, Ofir Drori and his organization, The Last Great Ape (LAGA), have put countless poachers and traffickers of endangered species behind bars, and they have fought back against a Kafkaesque culture of corruption. Before Ofir arrived in Cameroon, no one had ever even tried.
The Last Great Ape follows a young Ofir on fantastical adventures as he crosses remote African lands by camel, on a horse, and in dug-out canoes, while living with exotic tribes and struggling against nature at its rawest: charging elephants and hyenas, flash floods, and the need to eat river algae and snails to stay alive. The story moves from places of extreme beauty to those of the darkest horror: the war zones of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Ofir begins to work as a photojournalist in order to expose his shocking encounter with war victims and child soldiers. His experiences forge in him a resolution to become an activist and to fight for justice.
The search for a cause eventually leads him to Cameroon. When Ofir discovers that no one is fighting to disprove Jane Goodall's dark prophesy that apes in the wild will be extinct in twenty years, he decides that he is the man to step in; because he knows he can make a difference, he sees it as his responsibility. And LAGA is born.
The Last Great Ape is a story of the fight against extinction and the tragedy of endangered worlds, not just of animals but of people struggling to hold onto their culture. This book reveals the intense beauty and strife that exist side by side in Africa, and Ofir makes the case that activism and dedication to a cause are still relevant in a cynical modern world. This dangerous and dramatic story is one of courage and hope and, most importantly, a search for meaning.
The cinderblock wall glowed green in the light, as if the house were underwater. A metal bowl sat on the clay near a plastic bucket for washing clothes. In the outdoor kitchen were enough plates and pans to serve a village, and standing next to the mud-splattered wall was a young chimpanzee. She walked forward on her hind legs and extended a hand toward an old man, Christopher.
"How's it going?" Christopher said in French, as if the chimp were greeting him.
When she reached the end of her chain, she jerked and lowered an arm to the ground to regain her balance. The chimp was a year and a half to two years old and no doubt a survivor of the slaughter of her family by poachers.
"Leave it. Leave it," said the dealer. "Hey, Kita!"
"You call her how?" Christopher said.
"Kita. Kita, leave it!"
She grew panicked and scared as Christopher followed the big-bellied dealer away from her, toward the road. Kita whined, "Ooh ooh ooh ooh." And Christopher mumbled something I couldn't understand; he was difficult to understand in person, let alone on the recording of a hidden camera.
I rewound the tape.
On the video recorder's tiny screen I watched the footage again.
The shoulder bag Christopher had just carried from his meeting with the dealer sat at my feet. Stuck to the bag as a distraction from the button-sized eye of the hidden camera was a yellow Guinness pin, now covered with bugs that had crawled out of the grass. The camera contraption inside the bag was held together by duct tape, our near budget-less improvisations never ceasing to amaze me for working. Christopher was a retired military adjutant in his mid-fifties and one of my undercover agents, and we stood together, hiding behind luxurious Hotel Azur in Bastos, Yaoundé's richest neighborhood.
I touched Christopher's shoulder, and he moved off toward the hotel entrance to wait. The dealer Tonye Nken had set the price of the chimpanzee at 150,000 francs, around $250. And if what Nken had said was true, he was now on his way to the hotel to finalize the sale to Christopher.
I pushed the rifle barrel of one of the men down toward the grass. Four armed policemen stood around me with an officer from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MINEF). I felt the inevitable fear of violence that accompanied the necessary deterrent of guns.
"Temgoua, do you understand we need to do it quick?" said our lead police officer, Julius, who wore an olive green uniform.
"Yes, of course," said Temgoua the MINEF official as he adjusted his beret.
"Not like at the market with those ladies selling elephant meat," Julius said. "We don't want luck to be the reason we get out of here. You explain the law and we take him. He doesn't need a lecture about animals."
Julius' forearms were roped with veins, his bearing that of a man twice his size. Quiet Temgoua spent a decent portion of his MINEF salary on cable television so he could watch nature films.
"Again," I said, "if a car comes with the dealer but no chimp, no one moves."
"Mmm," Julius and Temgoua hummed in accord.
"If that happens, Christopher calls me from his mobile, and I give him new instructions. If the dealer plays it smart and sends someone in his place to deliver the chimp, no one moves. To keep the dealer from escaping we have to get him away from his vehicle."
I rushed around the building when a car drove up, but Christopher waved me off. I could smell the tropical stink of my underarms. The pipes in my house had been dry for days and I was even dirtier than when I'd slept in the bottom of a canoe on the Niger; rivers had long been better habitats for me than towns. The police officers blotted their foreheads with their sleeves. Ignatius, a man along to film the arrest, had helped to recruit Julius to the team. We made a suspicious gang lurking behind the hotel with a video camera and assault rifles and we could only hope no one spotted us.
At 1:20 P.M., twenty minutes past the meeting time, I crept along the flowerbeds between the hotel and its high outer wall. The equatorial sun was radiating off the driveway, the place as hot as cleared jungle. Christopher leaned against an empty concrete guardhouse at the hotel entrance. He wore a light blue administrative suit with a short-sleeve coat and he'd lowered his top hat over his eyes like an old-time detective.
"Call him, Christopher. Ask if he's on his way. We don't care much about his answer. Just listen if you can hear a car engine in the background."
Christopher moved off toward the hotel lobby, swinging his limbs in slow motion as if parodying a spy film, as if such a gait made him invisible. I was anxious, squeezing the bridge of my nose, marveling at the potential catastrophes I managed to invent. We'd picked Bastos for the arrest, a place packed with embassies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) where empty streets offered safety from mobs we'd faced in recent operations, some of them so chaotic I'd rushed to erase our video footage to avoid losing the support of anyone who saw it.
Christopher had searched Yaoundé the past week for dealers, inquired in the markets, posed as the cook of a white man interested in having a pet chimp. A number of recent leads on apes had turned out to be monkeys unprotected by law, and I was skeptical when Christopher told me he had the phone number of a man trying to sell a chimpanzee. Twice Christopher had visited the dealer's house in Chapelle Simeon. He told the dealer, "The white man won't come to you, and I'm not going to handle this wild animal. You come with it, eh? He gives you the money direct." For every live orphaned ape outside the jungle, it was estimated that there were nine other apes who'd been shot in the hunt. The illegal commercial trade for ape meat and for pets, not subsistence-level hunting or habitat loss, was driving chimps and gorillas toward extinction. Jane Goodall had estimated that, if the well-organized trade was not stopped, apes in the wild would be gone in fewer than twenty years.
Outside the hotel lobby, a Cameroonian driver leaned against a Mercedes, another against a 4X4, their patrons likely dining inside or attending the seminar advertised in French on a sign by the front steps: "Poverty Alleviation—Phase II Workshop." Decades of meetings and strategy papers had left Central Africa even poorer, lagging behind in indicators ranging from education to health; the international community and the aid business did not deal with the primary obstacle to both development and conservation: corruption. I'd recently founded my NGO with the aim of bringing new ways to an old system. Fighting for animals, I hoped, was just the beginning.
Christopher slid into view, walked across the parking lot and whispered to me, "The dealer is coming now. Yes." He lowered his top hat and sidled toward the guardhouse. I dashed past the flowerbeds and the finely clipped cone-shaped trees and ducked around the back of the hotel where our tiny army was waiting. For a few seconds my mind went to Rachel, the woman I loved and could not stop loving, the woman I'd lived with in Tel Aviv, who I'd neither seen nor spoken to in the months since I'd told her I had to return to Africa.
A car clanked up the road. Stopped. I peeked out from behind the hotel. Christopher stepped back and lifted his arm in a gesture lacking even a hint of subtlety.
"We move! He's here," I said to the team. "Go! Go! Go!"
I sprinted toward the gate. Julius shot past me with the policemen, their rifles raised. The dealer looked up as we rushed into the road and swarmed him and a younger man. It seemed not to have occurred to them to flee. The dealer Tonye Nken was slumped at the shoulders, his striped red and brown shirt tucked in around his gut, kempt with unkempt. The chimp, hugging the young man, was redolent with a sour, oily smell I'd come to love.
"The wildlife law of 1994, article 158," Temgoua said, "states that any person caught with a class A endangered species, living or dead, whole or in part, is subject to a maximum of three years in prison."
Kita spun out of her handler's arms and sat between his feet, looking up at him.
"I'm the son of a chief," the dealer said in French, likely thinking he could threaten or bribe his way out of the problem; in Cameroon, police harassment was as ordinary as eating, and the culture of corruption rendered many laws useless.
Temgoua was mumbling again about animals. "Who is the owner?" I said.
"I am," the dealer said, patting his chest and then motioning toward the young man holding Kita. "I'm his father."
"You came here to sell it?" I said.
"Yes." He pointed at Christopher. "Ask him."
Christopher held up his arms as if a pistol had been jammed against his ribs.
"He's just working for me," I said. "He didn't know I was coming for you."
A waitress yelled from the hotel driveway. Passing taxis stopped in the road to watch. The stressed, mustard-eyed chimp pursed her lips. An officer swung toward the hotel with his gun when a man in a suit sprinted toward us, his shoes slapping the hotel driveway. The man said, "I want to see your IDs! You can't do this at my hotel! There are customers here. Who is your boss?"
"Come, come, we go. Let's move!" Julius said and ushered the dealer toward one of our waiting taxis. Julius pushed him into the backseat and climbed in with the officers, and they headed for the station.
Not wanting to shock the baby chimp by separating her from her handler, I asked the dealer's son to accompany me to my house on the edge of Yaoundé, where the city gave way to rainforest. Scowling and quiet, the thick-shouldered boy sat beside me in the cab, watching Yaoundé pass beyond the window. He wore blue jeans. He was around eighteen years old. I was twenty-six.
"I think your father will be locked tonight in jail. Tomorrow the state council will decide if the case moves forward to trial. You can see your father tonight if you want. Tomorrow, too. In the end, it's the judge who decides what happens."
The chimp grabbed at the window. A naked man may have seemed just as out of place in a cab as Kita. She pressed her nose to the boy's neck.
"I see she loves you very much," I said. "You must be treating her well."
The boy's angst broke with a smile.
"Kita will stay with me," I said. "For one month, two months, until we find her a place in the forest with other chimpanzees.
"To get this law applied and to make sure no one bribes the police, lawyers, or judge—this is my work." I pulled a business card from my pocket and put it in the boy's hand. "My phone number is written there. My name is there. It's Ofir. If your mother has questions or if you want to know what's happening with your father, call me. Or she can. And I'll explain more."
I didn't tell him that if his father was sentenced for trafficking in an endangered species, it would be a victory over corruption and likely the first prosecution for wildlife crime in all of West and Central Africa. I didn't tell the boy that while I felt for his father, I planned to battle with all I had to put the man in prison.
And to prison he would go. My path to activism and my arrival to this moment, at the birth of the Last Great Ape Organization, had led across the continent, from the savannah to warzones, to rivers, rebels, and back. Without intense experiences spread across eight years, I would never have learned how to begin my fight.CHAPTER 2
Nairobi was cold as morning desert. The savannah stretched into the bluish haze beyond the airport like an image I'd carried in childhood. The sun peeked over the horizon, and light moved through branches of the acacia trees, through the grass, until the scene was beautiful enough for elephants.
I descended stairs parked against the jet and scampered up the runway behind other passengers, my pack wobbling on my back. I approached a stranger in the terminal and asked him to share a taxi into the city. Swahili sounded from the cab's stereo as the car creaked away from the airport like a swing on a playground. The driver accelerated. Kenya rushed at me as we swerved between potholes and minivans jammed with passengers. A broken traffic light was bent over, on the verge of toppling into an intersection. A man in a rancid T-shirt pushed a cart but turned before I could see his face. A boy, even skinnier than I, sold wrenches. Women strolled with pots balanced on their heads. An advertisement on a crumbling wall of a fat woman drinking Coke. A median strung with barbed wire, cracked, disintegrating pavement, businessmen in suits standing in the dirt. There was too much to follow, all at once everything new. And gray. A world filled with trash unlike the Africa I knew from books, magazines, and films. I became conscious of my breath: winded, breathing through my mouth. Was I wrong to have come?
Nearly from the time I could talk, I'd planned to travel to Africa, a place as different as I wanted to think I was. My parents had ordained my love of the continent, perhaps, by naming me after an ancient and unknown African land mentioned in the bible. Hiram's fleet brought gold from Ophir. My mother had stoked my wildness. She took me to a junkyard to play with glass so I would experience being cut as a three year old. She brought home bags of shredded paper and styrofoam and said, "Swim in this." When I was four, she sent me off to buy milk for my younger sister, and a neighbor found me trying to cross the highway two kilometers away. Mom, an Arabic teacher, scoured bookshops for Tarzan comics by Edgar Rice Burroughs: "Tarzan, King of the Apes," "Tarzan, the Wild Conqueror," "Tarzan and the Treasures of Ofir." I roamed the neighborhood through first grade in underwear, climbing and falling and swinging from trees, my mother criticized then for how she raised me and criticized now for allowing me at the age of eighteen to travel to Africa alone.
The cabdriver stopped at a matatu station, a chaos of minibuses and bodies in a swirl of dust. The man in the front seat spoke with the driver, both of them bungling their English. I gripped the door handle but couldn't see the faces of those standing around the cab. My glasses slipped down my nose. I checked my pocket notebook again, which I'd filled with photocopied maps and details from Lonely Planet about safaris and hotels. I could hear my father's voice: You have your backpack? Your passport? The money didn't fall out of your pocket? Check the seat. Okay. You just need a hotel room. It's as simple as you planned. I opened the door when the other man did and stepped outside, smelling wood smoke and tar. The air was colder than in Israel. "Hell Raider" was painted on the side of a matatu. I spun around. Men were shouting. At me? I scurried through a cloud of truck exhaust toward the sign for Hotel Iqbal. A street tout stood on shattered pavement near the front doors, and he said, "Want to go on safari? Let's go." As he led me up the road, I stumbled because I was looking back at the hotel, wondering if my father would say I was stupid for allowing the plan to change.
Skyscrapers gave way to metal shacks and then to savannah, and I motored with seven other travelers in a minivan toward the Maasai Mara, saying little, anxious I'd become passive, for participation grew harder the longer it was absent. A Frenchman in a khaki adventure vest talked to a cute Israeli girl. Two Brits in the back spoke to each other, though if they were a couple it didn't count that they were talking. Had the Mexican spoken more than I? His cheeks were so dry and cracked, it seemed he'd been buried in the desert for decades. He probably thought I was a child. Why hadn't I spoken at the beginning when it was easy?
Three Thomson's gazelles leapt from the edge of the highway. Eudorcas thomsonii! Just beside the road! And we weren't even in a park! Their white tails bobbed as they darted off, and I turned consciously to watch them as we passed, in part because it made sense not to talk when fascinated. The grasslands were endless, so vast that they seemed already to belong to a different year than the quick morning in Nairobi.
A thousand afternoons I'd spent barefoot in the field near our three-room flat in Tel Aviv, often with my sister, Mor. We overturned rocks in search of lizards, hedgehogs, and snakes and one winter carried home a viper and called up to Dad. "Don't worry, Dad!" I said. "It's cold; she's not moving!" And he descended the stairs and photographed eight-year-old Mor holding the viper up by the tail.
Alarmed neighbors more than once called wildlife control.
Excerpted from The Last Great Ape by Ofir Drori, David McDannald. Copyright © 2012 Ofir Drori and David McDannald. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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