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Veteran FWS official serves as U.S. eyes, ears in poaching crackdown

Gabon's government announced grim news last year: Poachers had killed 11,000 elephants in Minkebe National Park.

The data suggested that 60 percent of the African park's elephants were gone, all within a decade. But unlike many conservationists, Richard Ruggiero wasn't surprised.

Ruggiero, a towering 61-year-old comfortable in khakis and sneakers, was part of a team that first discovered the extent of poaching in the park. He compared what he saw to "one of Dante's circles of hell": a half-mile-wide cut in the wilderness rigged with bright spotlights and filled with thousands of illegal gold miners, weapon traffickers and elephant poachers.

As the Obama administration makes wildlife trafficking a priority, Ruggiero is among the foot soldiers on the ground in Africa, one of the few at the Fish and Wildlife Service who will help coordinate what is now a global response to a growing illicit trade. Colleagues and friends say he is the quintessential man behind the scenes -- a guy who rarely takes credit for his role in protecting African wildlife.

Ruggiero has been waiting his entire career for poaching to get the attention it now commands. Last year's executive order from President Obama -- and a subsequent national plan -- means resources across the federal government will be used to stop a slaughter he has watched for decades from the front lines.

On a recent afternoon, Ruggiero sat in his Arlington, Va., office, a typical rectangular room that seemed worlds apart from the photos of African wildlife on his walls. Classical music played in the background: "Capriccio Espagnol" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Music, he said, keeps him calm. But when Ruggiero talks about elephants -- and rising poaching -- he exudes urgency.

"You know when you get the two-minute warning in a football game? I hear the whistles going," said Ruggiero, who heads FWS conservation efforts in Africa as branch chief of the Near East, South Asia and Africa. "But it's not too late because we can still score in a way that's going to make the game work. I'm convinced of that. I'm more excited and optimistic than I have been before I knew any better."

To Ruggiero, wildlife trafficking verges on the personal. He has spent a combined 17 years in Africa, studying wildlife, learning local languages and working with Africans on conservation. He has bonded with elephant families, lying next to them as they nurse their calves and watching them mourn their dead. He has seen their faces sliced off by poachers harvesting ivory, and he knows that many of the elephants from his younger days have all met a grisly end.

Elephants, he said, display the same types of emotional scars that people do after a generation of "running scared and being raped and pillaged and shot at and bled and oppressed and violated in every way possible."

People exposed to such trauma are the "walking wounded. They've already lost a great deal of their quality of life. They've lost sometimes the integrity of their societies because maybe the men are all dragged out and killed," Ruggiero said. "In the case of elephants, the first ones to go are the big males. Then they start killing the females. Then you have 'Lord of the Flies,' with a bunch of young running around that are shell-shocked, and they act like it."

But Ruggiero is optimistic that the Obama administration's focus on wildlife trafficking can turn the tide in what has so far been a losing battle. With Obama's mandate, agencies are now opening their doors, providing expertise and resources to the cause.

"We've got all of these people who come with their institutional experience, with their own databases, with their contacts, with their mindsets," he said.

He added later: "These people are tripping over themselves to help us to do this because that synergy is being demanded, because all of this good thought and good energy and the power and capacity of this government is being focused. It's unleashed and now being focused on this issue."

Unflappable

Wildlife trafficking is nothing new. Ivory, in particular, has long been a luxury commodity, a material skillfully carved into statues, religious objects, decorative trinkets and adornments on everything from knives to pipes.

But the price of such art is dead elephants.

In the 1980s, according to the World Wildlife Fund, poaching killed off up to 80 percent of herds in some regions. By 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) had banned international trade in African elephant ivory.

Ruggiero first traveled to Africa in 1981, in the middle of what would later be recognized as a mass slaughter. He started as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic, later moving on to Kenya, Zimbabwe, the Republic of Congo and Gabon.

His career path led him into the midst of violence, aimed both at people and wildlife. But instead of getting discouraged, he discovered he was good at staying calm under duress. He credits coming from a long line of what he calls "cannon fodder": his grandfather fought in World War I, his father in World War II and his brother in Vietnam.

"It was a calling. It was exciting. It was something that I was good at," he said. "It came naturally to me, easily to me. The more dangerous a situation became, the more calm I was."

Ruggiero also turned out to be good at working with communities. One of his lasting achievements is persuading a village in the early 1990s to adopt sustainability measures to ensure they didn't run out of food to hunt. His tactic: Bring the village chief to another village that had overhunted in order to sell off the bush meat to a logging concession.

By seeing the effects firsthand, the village chief agreed to establish rules, including prohibiting the sale of meat outside the village and establishing guidelines for when, how and what to hunt. Residents still follow those rules today, if perhaps not as strictly, and elephants roam safely.

Such experiences helped develop Ruggiero's conviction that African communities and countries must be engaged in any conservation work -- and must eventually take over the task. It's a Peace Corps principle: Work yourself out of a job.

Ruggiero applies that philosophy in his job at FWS, where he determines how best to spend the agency's limited funds for conservation work. The agency looks for places with the political will -- or the potential for that will -- to conserve wildlife and then partners with African officials.

"You know, you hear people say, 'Well, elephants are a world heritage.' Well, sure they are. ... It resonates with everybody," Ruggiero said. "But who ultimately has the de facto and the de jure responsibility to keep elephants alive? The answer is the people who live in the country who make those decisions. They are Africans, in this case."

'It's really personal'

While many conservationists find their way into the nonprofit world, Ruggiero has stuck with the Fish and Wildlife Service for 16 years.

During that time, he has helped build up the service's Multinational Species Conservation Acts, which provide grants to projects that benefit elephants, rhinos, great apes and marine turtles. His division selects which projects in Africa get grants, focusing its choices on what can make the biggest difference.

Sue Lieberman, who worked with Ruggiero at FWS until 2001, said he excels at strategically dispersing money where it will go furthest. He's not chained to a desk; instead, he goes out in Africa to get the "current lay of the land," she said.

"He's dedicated," said Lieberman, now the executive director for conservation policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "He didn't take that job because he wanted to work in Washington for the government. He took the job because he's really a dedicated conservationist."

Ruggiero and his staff act as the government's in-house experts on how conservation is playing out in Africa. They travel to bushmeat markets, to remote national parks, to ports. They establish contacts and learn the "field reality" for efforts that most people only see on paper.

Dirck Byler, the FWS program officer for Africa Programs, said Ruggiero leads the small staff with a strong passion for conservation -- and a willingness to be confrontational when necessary.

When poachers killed four elephants in Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo, Ruggiero was immediately on the phone with the nongovernmental organization that manages the park, holding senior officials accountable for the breach.

"For Richard, it's really personal. I think he takes on a certain level of responsibility beyond what other conservationists might," said Byler, who works under Ruggiero.

"He's less willing to overlook things. We get bad news all the time, and after a while, a tendency for a lot of conservationists is to say, 'We'll do our best.' With Richard, he gets upset. He gets angry. He takes action."

Foster dad for a chimp

On first impression, Ruggiero appears unflappable, a biologist who talks about the dire situation of elephants and other African wildlife with the demeanor of someone who has seen it all.

But he also loves to tell stories, like the time his wife unleashed her blond locks from her baseball cap and began to brush them, to the astonishment of African children who had never seen a white woman. Or when he took a "stupid-ass" challenge to travel for two weeks without seeing any sign of humanity, only to spot a satellite as he admired the starry sky.

More recently, in 2012, he became the temporary guardian of a 6-month-old chimpanzee, after spotting the animal on the hip of a man on the side of the road. The man appeared to be involved in illegal wildlife trafficking, and the chimp was likely the orphan of a mother killed for bushmeat.

Ruggiero comforted the chimp for two days, holding the young animal close to his chest to calm him. In a blog post on the experience, he admitted to giving in to the "luxury of feeling, rather than just thinking and rationalizing the situation as a wildlife manager should."

But he also reflected that such caring can be useful, prompting responsibility for the fate of animals that have been orphaned, mistreated and otherwise put at risk.

Ruggiero's wife, Heather Eves, called the story "classic Richard." It's one he immediately told to his kids -- who are now 13 and 11 -- when he returned home.

Family is obviously Ruggiero's priority; the walls and desk in his office feature photos of his daughter and son, and he frequently injects them and Eves into the conversation.

Ask Ruggiero how he met his wife, and he immediately repeats the line he tells his children: "She turned over the right rock."

In Eves' version, their paths crossed for years, beginning with his request that she lecture to a class for a study abroad program in Kenya. They later met for coffee on Nairobi's well-known Mama Ngina Street and then attended the same conference in South Africa, where he was too sick with malaria to ask her on a date. They eventually began writing each other letters, which took weeks to reach the remote areas where they worked.

One day, he got off a plane in Kenya and told her she was it. By 1993, they were engaged after just six months of long-distance dating, and Ruggiero had convinced her to join him in the Republic of Congo.

"I said to her in my normal obnoxious style, 'Well, you know, Kenya's really nice and it's nice to do conservation there, but anybody can do it; it's too easy. Why don't you come to Congo? See if you can do it there,'" he recalled. "So she came to Congo and did her doctorate work."

More than 20 years later, they live in Arlington -- far from where they began their life together in Africa. But they both wanted a family, and when Ruggiero got an offer from FWS, they felt he couldn't turn down the opportunity.

Eves, an expert in the bushmeat trade, exudes confidence in Ruggiero, describing him as diplomatic but also "willing to stand up and speak up for what he believes."

"I absolutely believed from the very beginning that he was going to be a key to enabling wildlife to have a chance to live for the next seven generations," she said. "I wanted to be a partner in that."

In deciding where to live, they took out a map and looked for the "biggest patch of green," Eves said. Their house abuts a bike path, 3 miles from Ruggiero's office and close to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University program for which Eves is a visiting professor. They make a point of having dinner together as a family each night, with Ruggiero often cooking the meal.

It's a far cry from where Ruggiero grew up, in what he calls the "big, blighted city" of Paterson, N.J. He attended Eastside High School, a school made infamous for its gang and drug violence in the 1989 film "Lean on Me."

His escape was nature -- first on camping trips with his father and brother to Harriman State Park in New York and later when he took a 5 a.m. bus to go barbless fly fishing. Pigeons, starlings, house sparrows and cats all piqued his attention closer to home.

"I was an urban refugee, and so nature became my escape, my therapy, my panacea, my safe haven," he said. He kept that passion through college, earning a doctorate from Rutgers University with a dissertation on the ecology and conservation of elephants in central Africa.

Gabon's promise

Today, Ruggiero travels to Africa three or four times a year, for a few weeks at a time. Much of his focus is on Gabon, which is home to more than half of Africa's remaining forest elephants.

Despite the massacre in Minkebe National Park, Ruggiero believes Gabon holds the most promise in saving the elephant population. Not only is it a prosperous country with a small population, but the country's leader, President Ali Bongo Ondimba, has made wildlife preservation a priority.

In other words, Gabon has the political will that Ruggiero believes is integral to making headway. It's a country that wants to work with the United States to protect an environment that is home to elephants, gorillas and other animals.

"The quick bucks are there: Cut the damn forest, kill all the fish, let the ivory go to wherever. We'll make the money, we'll put it in our pockets, bang, we're off to Switzerland to the U.S., or wherever," he said. "They're not doing that, because they have pride in their country."

Ruggiero hopes Gabon can serve as an example of how partnerships with African countries can yield the best results. As the Obama administration helps kick-start a global effort to combat trafficking, FWS's efforts in Gabon could provide lessons in how to best tackle the problem on the conservation side.

But Ruggiero acknowledges that the situation will get worse before it gets better. In 2012 alone, poachers killed 30,000 elephants, fueling an ivory trade that funnels billions of dollars each year to criminal syndicates -- all to provide consumers in China, the United States and elsewhere with expensive baubles.

To Ruggiero, the situation is nothing short of the genocide of an animal that mourns its dead, loves its young and suffers emotionally.

"I am convinced many, if not most, know that people are trying to kill every last one of them and that they emotionally suffer because of it, and I can see it in their behavior," he said. "I am sure that they feel that and that they know it. That people are committing a genocide on them, and most of them even know it's for their teeth."

Email: eyehle@eenews.net

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