On the Prowl for Poachers
Fish and wildlife agent goes undercover to stop wildlife contraband
THE next time you see a wildlife special on television, think of Dave Hall. He does not fit the clean-cut, soft-spoken image of the game warden who helps a cameraman track wildebeest. Dave Hall is a special agent with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He works undercover. He bags poachers, big-time poachers. For 25 years, Hall has been a warrior in the war on wildlife contraband, which today is a billion-dollar-a-year illegal business.
But despite the many arrests he has made, Hall knows he is still losing the war - to greed, indifference, official corruption, and stupidity. In "Games Wars: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers," Marc Reisner takes us behind the scenes of this ongoing, incredibly destructive and cruel war by chronicling three of Hall's undercover operations.
Reisner is too good a writer not to know his subject needs a near-legendary hero (as Hall is to the Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups). Hall supplies the drama. Reisner uses the exploits, dangers, and sheer adventure of Hall's undercover work to tell the story of the illegal slaughter of animals.
When Hall has his work clothes on, he assumes various identities: Charlie Strickland, alligator poacher, tanner, and all-purpose thief; Dave Hayes, a professional crook with an oil-leasing business who just "loves" to sell carved walrus tusks to "good ole" boys from the east Texas oil patch; or "Big Jim" Pridgen, a Jackson, Miss., caterer who specializes in illegal wild game.
"Game Wars" details three major sting operations in Hall's 25-year law-enforcement career: alligator poaching in Louisiana, illegal commercial fishing (crappies) also in Louisiana, and the ivory trade (walrus tusks) in Alaska. Practicing participatory journalism, Reisner even takes part in one Louisiana operation as a stand-in in a Mississippi diner.
Reisner shows how interstate criminal operations allow Hall to avoid dealing with the still-corrupt Huey Long machine, which permeates the Louisiana Fish and Game Department, notorious for looking the other way. The author is there when a hidden microphone and camera record illegal deals to ship fish to a wholesale outlet on Chicago's South Side. The market is recent black emigres from the South, who will buy 5,000 pounds of Larto Lake Lousiana crappie in a weekend at Donald Clayton's fish store on Chic a
go's South Side - where food stamps are as good as cash.
Much of Reisner's information comes from tapes secretly recorded by Hall and his special agents on assignment. The transcripts, worked into a masterly re-creation of the scene, are profane, irrational, emotional, and dead-pan deadly. The dialogue grabs.
When a game warden makes a bust, he - and sometimes she - almost always confronts a suspect who is armed and skilled with high-powered weaponry. It is dangerous work seldom reported in the press, in contrast to the publicity given to environmental activist groups like Greenpeace. One of Hall's greatest talents is his ability to turn former game outlaws into undercover agents. They know where the killing grounds are, he says.
Hall records the following comments by an illegal ivory-tusk dealer he will shortly arrest: "Let's put it this way. Since I've been in business, a lot of things have changed. We have things today like government interference and all that. But we still have a lot of inventory. And one good thing - two good things about the government. Number one is they're stupid. Number two, they're lazy. If government guys were like you and me, this country would be in real trouble today." Because of individuals like D
ave Hall, endangered wildlife is in much less "trouble" than it would otherwise be.
Throughout, though, the extensive use of tapes serves a bigger purpose than drama for Reisner. They document the extent of the illegal game trade.
Hall, a strong defender of the right to hunt - legally - learned to judge the success of an undercover operation by how high up the dealer chain it reached. He wanted to catch the actual poachers, certainly, but they were little fish. He wanted to catch the illegal dealers even more.
Throughout the action he describes, Reisner throws in history lessons and sociological tracts on the nature of land development and hunting in North America. He explores the absence of a hunting ethic in Asia, the largest market for ivory and the destination of 98 percent of the illegal elephant ivory. He traces the European attitude toward wildlife as it was brought across the ocean.
"To a starving European peon, who was shot on sight if he entered the duke's wildlife preserve, a game law was simply another instrument of oppression.... In a nation of immigrants just liberated from landlessness and crowdedness and monarchy, game laws, like forestry laws and zoning laws and gun-control laws, were resisted with a singular passion. The yeoman American citizen, intoxicated by his right to bear arms, made giddy by the omnipresent wildlife he could hunt at will, could not recalibrate his v a
lues as the game ran out, could not constrain his impulse (always described as a God-given right) to hunt."
In the last chapter, starkly titled "Loss," Reisner's crisp, compressed style puts the drama of undercover work in grand, yet tragic, perspective as he catalogs the extermination of the buffalo, the carrier pigeon, the auk.
The book concludes with a portrait of loss too great to imagine, the ecological disaster occurring where freshwater wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River meet saltwater.
Reisner warns that the Gulf of Mexico, as a result of dams built up and down the river by the US Army Corps of Engineers, will, in a few decades, take back land deposited by thousands of years of flow from the "mother of waters."
From Alaska to Louisiana's coastal wetlands, from East African game herds to mob-controlled warehouses in Brooklyn and New Orleans, this book explores compelling environmental issues.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor.