14 February 2023

In the Thick of It: Alumnus Infiltrates Elephant Poaching Crime Ring

Jean-Claude Vignoli (‘05) is the author of Pour une Poignée d'Ivoire, a book about his work as a 'trafficker hunter', which was published on 16 February 2023.

How did you go from international relations to arresting criminals in Africa?
By luck and with determination. Initially, I followed the classic path of a former student of international relations. I cofounded a human rights NGO (UPR Info) and, after ten years of travelling in Africa, I felt I needed to defend animals, especially elephants. Following a seminal experience in fighting poachers in Kenya, I left my NGO to infiltrate criminal networks and lock up traffickers, the scourge who deprive us of Africa's unique wildlife. Studying international relations fueled my desire to fight every kind of inequality, so I just had to get my hands dirty.

Why write a book, after having spent years in the field?
To show that we have not lost yet. An every-day person can achieve what seems impossible. I showcase in my book how I helped take down two major criminal networks in Ivory Coast, while a few months earlier I was still walking the corridors of the UN dressed in a suit. Following your passions gives you wings. We are facing the greatest challenge in our history – climate change –  and I want to remind everyone that we can play a part in change, whatever our background or skills. We should just avoid being misguided by fear and fight for what is really important to us.

Why go to the field to defend animals instead of using international mechanisms?
States defend their own interests first and foremost, both economically and in terms of prestige. The UN and international organisations are useful for reconstruction, when states accept the principle of interference. But in wartime, efforts must be focused on the ground and not on international conferences, which are only marginally useful. For example, I expect nothing from COP conferences, but a lot from the activists who are fighting on the front line every day. If solutions are to be found, they will result from NGOs and individuals determined to reverse the deadly direction we are heading in.

Jean-Claude will be coming to the Institute on 7 March 2023 from 12:30-13:30 to share his story with students. More information on his visit is forthcoming.