Last June, Andrea Crosta walked into a warehouse in Beijing and found himself surrounded by predators: an arctic fox, a polar bear, a few wolves, and a grizzly bear, all stuffed and contorted in various stages of attack. For Crosta, the display was unsettling. Mainly, though, it just wasn't useful. While some of the taxidermy was contraband, none of it was proof that the warehouse owner, an ivory carver, had committed any serious crimes. At 47, the Italian-born Crosta had recently shelved a career as a private-sector security consultant in favor of fighting wildlife trafficking, founding two nonprofits: the Elephant Action League (EAL), a boots-in-the-dirt intelligence gathering group, and WildLeaks, a secure whistle-blower platform. "I've never made so little money," Crosta says, "and been so happy."
To gain access to the ivory carver, Crosta, whose eyes have the dark circles of a man who could use an Ambien, claimed to be a coral buyer. He wore a hidden camera in a button on his shirt; three colleagues posing as antiques traders were similarly wired. After using an iPhone to illuminate the polar bear's eyes, the ivory carver led Crosta and his crew to an adjacent showroom. There, the man reached into a drawer and pulled out tiger teeth, a vial of tiger-bone wine, and bracelets made from rhino horn. Was Crosta interested? He was.
Together the items represented a sort of dark trinity of evidence, grisly proof that the trader was trafficking in the most imperiled animals on the planet. Immediately, Crosta knew he was onto a major bust. But in the excitement, one of Crosta's colleagues started conspicuously passing her purse, which contained a camera, in front of contraband. One of the traders reached out and snatched the satchel, exposing a tangle of wires inside.
Everyone froze. Crosta played dumb, feigning confusion while Chinese workers pulled his colleagues aside. Crosta retreated to the bathroom, where he quickly unwired himself and stuck his SD card in his sock. He later delivered it to two outlets: Chinese authorities, who have yet to act on it, and Richard Ladkani, an Austrian documentary filmmaker, who put the scene in his forthcoming film Ivory, which will be released this fall. Crosta's colleagues eventually talked their way out of the jam by claiming, somewhat implausibly, that their bosses abroad needed documentation of the goods. "We nailed them," Crosta says.
Since founding the EAL in 2013 and WildLeaks the following year, Crosta has positioned himself as an audacious and innovative activist taking on one of the world's largest illegal markets. (By some estimates, wildlife crime trails only items like drugs, counterfeit goods, and human trafficking in terms of scale.) It's murky, hazardous territory, one that's full of opportunity: Intelligence in wildlife crime is extremely limited at the moment. There's the effective London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, an advocacy and intelligence group, and national organizations like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But most conservation organizations — Conservation International, WildAid — focus on the supply side of wildlife trafficking (protecting animals from poachers) or curbing demand (funding PR campaigns opposing shark fin soup, for example). "One reason conservation is the least inventive field on Earth," Crosta says, "is because you don't have what you have in the tech world, where innovation comes from newcomers. The big orgs have been saying and doing the same things for four decades. Meanwhile, we've lost half the planet."
Crosta's niche is attacking the suppliers, buyers, and enablers directly, and his ultimate goal is to turn WildLeaks into a sort of law-abiding, animal-serving WikiLeaks. To be sold, ivory and other illegal goods need to be moved from Africa to the black markets in Asia. That means trafficking organizations need corrupt port officials to overlook their contraband, shady shipping businesses to transport the goods, and lots of people at every stage to look the other way. By creating a safe clearinghouse for whistle-blowers, Crosta hopes that a few of those people will offer tips that he can vet for accuracy, then hand off to local authorities.
"Andrea is filling a gap," says Damien Mander, head of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation. "He's naming names, and if you start dancing too high up the food chain, these people will stop your operation very quickly. He's starting to play in a dangerous space."
As a kid growing up in Milan, Italy, Crosta had visions of saving wildlife in Africa or working as a park ranger in America, and he earned a master's degree in natural sciences from the University of Milan. In 1993, while he was in school, his mother committed suicide, an event that set him adrift. "The love for nature and the curiosity for the world," he says, "kept me sane."
His studies were also interrupted by compulsory military service, which Crosta did with the carabinieri, Italy's national police; his job was to guard the houses of judges presiding over trials of mafia members. After school, he started and sold an e-commerce company, then moved to Israel to earn a second master's, this one in business administration. In 2001 he started a company that provided tech encryption, logistical support, and security escorts to businesses operating in hot spots around the world.
The work was lucrative but unfulfilling. "I had a cool, interesting job," he says. "But it was not my passion." Then, during an assignment for a Somali politician traveling in Kenya, Crosta got a tip that Al Shabaab, the Islamic terrorist organization, was involved in the ivory trade. Crosta began looking into the matter, arranging meetings with Al Shabaab go-betweens. Then in 2012 he visited Tsavo National Park, where he saw a dead male elephant stripped of its tusks and rotting in the sun. Crosta took this as a sign.
(An illegal wildlife trader in Beijing, captured via hidden camera, shows off his wares to Crosta.)
Within months Crosta, who lives in the Dutch countryside, in a house with a fake name out front ("My wife thinks I'm paranoid," he says) started the Washington, D.C.–based EAL. Unfortunately, the group's first big operation brought attention of the worst kind. Crosta had been using undercover operatives to film supposed affiliates of Al Shabaab, and in 2013 the EAL published a report claiming that "Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory as a means of funding their militant operations." Within a few months, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was speaking publicly about the link between ivory and radical Islam.
But the EAL's report, which stated that up to 40 percent of the money funding Al Shabaab's fighters came from ivory, lacked such basics as named sources and culprits. Critics quickly assailed the document. Crosta's defense: He had to protect his primary investigator. "Putting more information out would have meant him getting killed," he says. "I prefer to take all the shit in the universe."
Subsequent reports linked Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the ivory trade — evidence, at least, that ivory is funding terror elsewhere in Africa. But unlike Crosta's, the links were clear and the sources transparent.
Crosta now calls the Al Shabaab episode a learning experience. "We got burned," he says. "I'm very cautious now to be sure in what I'm saying in public."
He hopes 2016 will represent a new beginning. He started the year by publishing a report on his stings in China, which focused extensively on the country's ambiguous laws regarding endangered wildlife and Hong Kong's role as a "primary transit hub" for contraband. In January he traveled back to Italy, where he helped convince government officials to destroy the country's existing stores of ivory. Then comes Ivory, the film, which uses footage that Crosta captured showing traders in Hong Kong and China frankly discussing their work, showing off ivory, and copping to bribing officials. One brags about selling "tens of tons" of new ivory.
Crosta's hope is that the film will spread the antipoaching gospel and recruit new tips for WildLeaks — the site has received 80 since it launched two years ago. Of those, 30 have been substantive enough to pass along to authorities and other NGOs, though no arrests have been made. Crosta hopes that will soon change. In the meantime, he has plans to expose some traders himself. As usual, he'll hold back on revealing his sources.
"I'm sorry," he says, "but the best way to keep a secret is to keep it to myself. I don't play with the lives of people. Well, not honest people."