Switzer Fellowship Essay


February 1, 2009

My passion for wildlife conservation has only intensified with age. While I loved active duty Naval Intelligence work, targeting terrorists and dismantling international drug trafficking cartels, my heart was in endangered species preservation. Animals have no audible voice. Their lobbying skills need work. They can use a good attorney. I wanted to be their voice, and champion their cause.

As an Intelligence Officer for a squadron of F/A-18 fighter pilots, I prepared their target folders, enemy air combat tactics briefs, and escape and evade plans. I became General Wesley Clark’s Daily Briefer, then a Special Assistant to the Director of Intelligence. I advised ambassadors on counterdrug strategies, fused intelligence on Al Qaeda detainees and prepared assessments for the White House Office of General Counsel. It was exhilarating work, but I always wondered who was looking out for imperiled species.

After resigning my commission and turning down offers from defense contractors and intelligence agencies, I found myself cleaning cages as a volunteer at a Bird of Prey Recovery Center, exercising animals and educating the public. I was hooked. Although I had no experience in veterinary medicine, I landed a job as a Veterinary Technician’s Assistant at a local animal hospital, exploring my interest in becoming an exotic species veterinarian. The Everglades Law Center took me on as an unpaid advocate for their Florida Panther preservation project, and it was not long before I was behind the scenes at the Miami International Airport, inspecting caviar shipments, coding wildlife shipment declarations, and poring over intelligence as a volunteer for US Fish and Wildlife Service Inspectors. I learned the Lacey Act and acquired an understanding of animal import-export laws, with the intent to someday shut down the prodigious trade in imperiled species. My plan was coming together.

September 11th introduced a slight detour. I was immediately recalled to active duty military service, analyzing worldwide weapons-for-drugs trafficking routes and methods, exposing increased links between transnational trafficking and terrorism. It was then that I began to notice the nexus between arms traders and black market animal traders. My first published article became the template for follow-on reports in Southern Command’s 33-nation theater of operations. I was selected to run the annual Arms Trafficking Conference, at which the UN Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament, and Development offered me a full-time position. I politely turned them down. When my recall to active duty military service was complete, I was going to become a wildlife law enforcement officer.

I accepted a 65 percent pay cut from my Navy salary and entered the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Law Enforcement Training Academy, one of 43 recruits selected from nearly 1,300 applicants. It was like being in military boot camp all over again. With no previous hunting, fishing, or boating experience, I mustered a #3 of 41 ranking at graduation, based on academic performance, leadership, physical fitness, marksmanship, and field skills. I was assigned to Marine Patrol in the Florida Keys Special Conservation Area, and was on my way to catching poachers.

It was a relatively easy transition from military intelligence to conservation law enforcement. As a National Imagery Officer, I had become acutely attuned to our planet’s ecological vulnerabilities. The multi-spectral imagery collection assets I tasked exposed the extent to which drug crop eradication chemicals are destroying the ecology of the Amazon Basin, and depicted the impact of coffee cultivation on migratory bird nesting sanctuaries in Central America. I became cognizant of the extent to which grasslands and glaciers, prairies and polar caps are shrinking across the entire globe. I was ready to put the law to work to conserve our planet’s natural resources. Being a game warden in South Florida was as challenging as I had anticipated: gator wrestling, fish guts, boating accident investigations, and extended hours in isolated areas and inclement weather. The hardships only confirmed I had made the right choice. It was a thrill to go to work every day in my 30-foot, 500-horsepower, twin-engine floating office, atop the azure ocean waters of Biscayne Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, dolphins plying my boat wake. Not a day passed, whether cruising the coral reef line or soaring shotgun on air patrol over the Everglades, wherein I was not reminded of exactly why I became a wildlife officer. It bothered me that there were more tigers in zoos than in the wild, and that the illegal ivory trade was fueling internecine conflicts in Africa. I became a conservation officer because I am concerned about the health of our planet, and am earnestly committed to protecting endangered species and their habitat, so that ecosystems and biodiversity prosper as they should.

Each time I issued a citation, took a poacher to prison, or spoke to a judge about the criticality of closed seasons and fisheries sustainability, I was conscious that the protected status of Florida’s fauna is only as good as its guarantors — the peace officers and lawyers who enforce such laws. While I knew I was making a difference, however, I recognized that I was making it one animal at a time, which, while necessary and noble, was perhaps not the most substantial impact I could be making. It occurred to me that every state attorney I worked with admitted he would feel more comfortable in court had he first garnered field experience – to acquire an intimate familiarity with the statutes he enforced. I realized I had been posturing myself to become an adroit environmental attorney. An attorney friend at NRDC suggested I synthesize my military intelligence and wildlife law enforcement background with my legal ambitions by prosecuting Endangered Species Act violations under the Citizen Suit Clause. It was an audacious aspiration, but one worth pursuing if it would enable me to influence public policy, enact legislation, and impact conservation at a systemic level. All sacrifices incurred would be well worth it if I could save even one species, whether wolves or wombats, and guarantee their survival long after I am absent from the watch. I went for it.

I had time to think about such plan while serving as the US Naval Attaché in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and America’s fifth-largest supplier of oil. The Defense Attaché Service sent me there to spearhead the country’s interagency implementation of the Regional Maritime Awareness Capabilities program, intended to facilitate West African nations’ response to destabilizing threats in the Gulf of Guinea. I worked with US State Department Environmental Officers, UN Food and Agriculture Organization experts, and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs. Having grown up in a career Navy home, I joined the Navy because I had wanted to become a Naval diplomat and end the Cold War. Gorbachev beat me to it, but I still loved the diplomat’s “observe and report” mission and couldn’t get enough. My reports earned the highest evaluations of any attaché in either the US Embassy or Consulate in Nigeria. I was later invited to serve as the Acting Naval Attaché in Ghana in 2008, an experience I enjoyed equally well.

While in Africa the first time, I took the opportunity to visit various nations at my own expense, intent on comparing national wildlife conservation plans. Botswana particularly impressed me, whereas Zimbabwe was emblematic of a failing state whose wildlife continues to perish amidst increased lawlessness, poverty, and a collapsing legal system. I managed to procure an office call in Kenya with Dr. Richard Leakey, former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, wherein we discussed the impact of corruption and the black market trade on endangered species. He urged me to tackle climate change if I really want to save endangered species, avowing it was an even more pernicious threat to biodiversity than poaching. His advice prompted me to select UCLA for law school, as it was the first in the country to establish a cross-disciplinary center dedicated to advancing law and policy solutions to the global warming crisis. I was fortunate to be one 25 students selected from over 550 for UCLA’s renowned Public Interest Law Program, and it has been the most exciting aspect of my law school experience thus far. I chose an endangered species as my client in the seminar class last semester, and an influential member of the International Academy of Environmental Law suggested that I present my papers titled “Saving the African Rhino” at the 2009 Conference in China.

After having been a veterinary technician assistant, land use law office volunteer, wildlife rehabilitation volunteer, and game warden, I had finally winnowed a plethora of possible paths to the practice of law as the most powerful in terms of effecting real change. Upon relocating to California for law school and affiliating with a new Navy Reserve unit, however, I was charged with implementing a classified program in direct support of the National Intelligence Strategy. Though the effort consumed an inordinate amount precious school time, my team did exceptionally well, and our unit won the coveted O’Connell Award in 2008 — presented to the top Reserve Intelligence Unit in the country. I am now responsible for overseeing and supporting six detachments in the Western US, and continue to confer with national agencies and the Africa Partnership Station on Maritime Domain Awareness in Africa. Sometimes it is difficult to find time for my studies. Several attorneys with whom I have drilled in two different units admitted that they took time off from the Navy Reserve during law school, due its demanding time commitment. Asked to lead the Animal Law Society, I somehow have found time for its important initiatives as well, and those of the Veterans Law and Environmental Law Societies. Committed to finding a holistic solution to the Earth’s species extinction crisis, I flew to Brasilia last year on my spring break to meet with the Brazilian National Police and the in-country head of Interpol, to learn more about the nation’s successes and failures in combating the black market trade in animal trafficking.

Having traveled to over 60 countries, I have been exposed to the enforcement challenges intrinsic to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). I am familiar with resource management concerns confronting both the developed and developing world, from urban planning, carbon emissions, and sustainable development, to slash-and-burn farming, the bushmeat crisis, and desertification. Wherever my passions lead me, I endeavor to establish contacts with an eye toward implementing my long term plan: influencing environmental policy on a global scale, authoring stricter wildlife protection legislation, and conducting capacity building exercises with partner nations in order to enforce compliance with such laws. The more dire the predictions become about the future of imperiled flora and fauna on this Earth, the more intensely committed I become to protecting them. I will not be daunted by the sheer magnitude of the predicament our planet faces. The deeper I delve into opportunities available to environmental attorneys to mend the ecological mess, the more excited I am about putting a law degree to use. I would like to parlay the invitation to work with the UN Disarmament Program into a call to lead the UN Environmental Program. I have monitored international elections, been an integral part of petroleum infrastructure security, and collaborated with partner nation militaries on their support for democratic institutions and the rule of law. I joined UCLA’s Leaders In Sustainability program because I intend to translate such experience into fostering a collective commitment to harness alternative energy sources. I would like to capitalize on my experience with unmanned aerial vehicles to detect illicit logging, monitor illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, and preclude poaching in remote wilderness sanctuaries. I have conferred with the Legal Officer from the UN’s Division of Environmental Policy Implementation about organizing special tribunals for prosecuting wildlife crime in Africa. I have spoken to the Intelligence Officer from the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (an extension of CITES) about training for prosecutors in the Congo and Uganda. I see every interaction and challenge as an opportunity to craft one more piece of the puzzle’s solution. Attorney and former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Robert Strauss likened success to wrestling a gorilla: “You don’t quit when you’re tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired.” There are only a handful of mountain gorillas left on the planet. We must not tire. Never before has conservationists’ endurance meant more to guaranteeing the continued existence of endangered species.

I would have liked to have met Robert Switzer. Like him, I suffered permanent eye damage as a youth, a blowout fracture only partially corrected by surgery, entirely terminable with respect to the musings I entertained about becoming an aviator or astronaut. I found comfort in art, and eventually discovered the fluorescent Day-Glo paints Mr. Switzer helped invent. I have used them in some of the conservation art pieces on www.yeckart.com, and will now more fully appreciate their creator and origin. I illustrated a children’s book last year (“Homer, A Baseball’s Life”, still at the publisher) and am discussing similar work and ideas with Giggling Gorilla Productions. Though I was immensely disappointed that, as a finalist for Animal Planet’s King of the Jungle 2 in 2004, I was precluded from attending the final audition due to attendance requirements at the wildlife law enforcement academy, the founder of the World Consciousness Center believes it was for the best. We have now met twice, and she is interested in working with me on a feature film documenting the dangers of undercover wildlife officers’ investigative work in penetrating the black market trade in endangered species.

Your guidelines state that “only the most active, committed, and focused individuals” will be competitive Switzer Fellowship candidates. I am not sure it is possible to be more active, committed, or laser-focused than I am regarding worldwide biodiversity conservation. A Switzer Fellowship would help me keep the dream, and vanishing species, alive. I believe that from whom much has been given, much may be expected, and I would relish collaborating with former Fellowship recipients such as Amber Pairis and Emil McCain on their initiatives. I would appreciate taking part in Switzer Affinity Groups, to deliberate and move forward with the conservation finance proposals of Brad Timm and Chris Larson, in accordance with the Switzer vision. I am not sure where my dream will take me, but I know that it is much more important where I take my dream. I would carry Mr. Switzer’s vision with me as a Fellowship recipient, with not only the hope, but the capacity to convert that hope into action, to protect our planet’s precious but imperiled species. Thank you for considering my application.

Written by Glenn Yeck | Comments Off on Switzer Fellowship Essay