“Really, fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck” Andrea Crosta tells the driver of the car he just got in. Crosta is the founder of WildLeaks, a whistleblowing site for environmental crime, and he’s just aborted an undercover operation with a prominent ivory trader in China. Crosta wasn’t alone, and his collaborator’s hidden camera was spotted after she conspicuously moved her purse in front of some illegal merchandise. Crosta managed to talk his way out of the situation, but his colleague (only known as “Omega”) wasn’t so lucky. Crosta doesn’t know if she’s safe, or even alive. Five “fucks” seems a modest response, all things considered.
The busted operation will be familiar to anyone that’s seen Netflix’s documentary The Ivory Game, which features WildLeaks alongside other conservation groups fighting against China’s blackmarket for the prized material. But don’t call it the WikiLeaks of wildlife: The two sites may share some technological similarities, but ethically and practically they are very different. “They actually called us when we launched; they asked us if we wanted to discuss any kind of collaboration and we said no, because we are almost the opposite of WikiLeaks.” Crosta told me. “So WikiLeaks is all about splashing whatever you have on the media, as it is, a lot of noise. In my personal opinion, sometimes they hurt people.”
Instead, WildLeaks tries to use the information it gathers more selectively. Crosta has just released a 70-page report outlining all the work WildLeaks has done to combat the range of environmental crime that enables the ivory trade, illegal deforestation and many other organized criminal activities that erode our planet’s resources. If all that feels very far away from you and your life, consider this: If more people took environmental crime seriously, or knew about WildLeaks, we might not be dealing with the largest global pandemic in a century, at least, not at the same scale.
Crosta created WildLeaks in 2014, a year after forming Earth League International (ELI), formerly the Elephant Action League, which he describes as “the first intelligence agency for Earth.” WildLeaks is a separate, secure platform that allows tipsters to anonymously report any environmental crime without fear of exposure. ELI and WildLeaks do overlap, but the latter is something of a novel concept in environmentalism. Your classic NGO or environmental charity might have a website, maybe even a tips line, but Crosta sees technology as a key tool to up the ante in the fight against environmental crime, and it’s all about intelligence, a word he uses a lot.
“I started asking, who is doing intelligence? I discovered [it was] nobody and I was starting to think ‘Jesus Christ this is the fourth-largest criminal endeavour on the planet [worth] up to $209 billion per year. Including illegal logging, illegal fishing, and you're not using intelligence? You're a boy scout.’”
To bring intelligence to the fight against wildlife crime, Crosta regularly employs former CIA and FBI agents, and has a military background himself. “I come from Italy, I served in the military police, I was dealing with mafia as well.” His early dealings with organized crime would set him up with the perfect skill set to take on these crimes in a modern way. Let’s be clear, these are organized crimes and often overlap with drug cartels and human traffickers. But his path here wasn’t based on his military training. At least not on its own.
Crosta currently lives in Los Angeles, although he’s not listed at his apartment for security reasons. Originally he’s from Milan, Italy; his interest in conservation started when he was young. He has a masters in natural sciences, and started working in conservation before the sudden death of his mother meant he had to change careers. He completed more studies and started one of Italy’s first e-commerce sites which was going well until the dotcom bubble burst. “I almost became a millionaire and then I lost everything when the NASDAQ crashed.”
After his dot-com dream ended, he began working in intelligence and offering his services as a guard escort in Somalia during the height of the piracy issues there. Some of that work involved consultancy, investigation and intelligence and the associated technologies. While in Somalia he saw the impact of environmental crime at the grass roots. “It seemed we were losing 35-40 thousand elephants per year. I said, ‘Okay. It's time to go back to my original passion, but what can I do?’”
Crosta’s mix of ecommerce, conservation and work with anti-criminal agencies combined to provide a logical answer to that question: WildLeaks. The site launched to modest fanfare, but almost immediately started receiving tips. WildLeaks uses the TOR network and other anonymizing technology to allow informants to safely submit information about environmental crime. But after a few years of fighting environmental crime in the shadows, there was another surprise life event that would halt its progress.
“I got a lymphoma tumor in my stomach, so I had to stop a few activities and not to keep everything open. One of the things that I stopped was WildLeaks and the reports. Now that I feel okay, that I'm cured, we're relaunching the whole project and the reports.” So, six years, two documentaries, several undercover operations and some big “wins” later, Crosta is more eager than ever to realize his idea’s true potential.