Human and Wildlife Trafficking

Ridding the world of both
Tequia Burt ’98

People are sometimes surprised to learn that Steven Galster ’84 works equally hard to protect both humans and animals.

“When [my organization Freeland] first started out, we were looked at very oddly,” he says. “I used to go to meetings in the human rights community and there was this misconception that those who worked in wildlife only cared about animals and not about people.” 

However, Galster says that while working on issues surrounding global security for other organizations, he realized that the transnational trafficking of humans and animals had some things in common: “corruption, organized crime, and just the commodification of life.”

Galster says he began to grasp that there was a real need for risky frontline work on investigations and solutions aimed at the intersections in trafficking. “While conducting an investigation in the Russian Far East on Siberian tiger poaching, I met criminals who were trafficking tiger body parts and women,” he says. “When I tried to get police involved and sensed they were not ready to take on the crooks, I realized we had a role.”

So he founded an organization in 1995 that eventually evolved into Freeland (www.freeland.org) by 2002. The nonprofit provides training and technical assistance to police and customs and environmental agencies, giving them the tools to reduce poaching, illegal logging, enslavement, and the criminal exploitation of endangered people and animals.

“The vision of the organization is a world that is free of wildlife trafficking and human slavery,” he says. “The mission is to collaborate with civil society and governments to protect vulnerable people and wildlife.”

Freeland has had many successes since it was founded. In 2015, the nonprofit partnered with the Thai police to dismantle a human trafficking network controlled by a military general. It battled poachers targeting Indochinese tigers in 2017, helping to bring the big cat populations back from the brink of extinction. Freeland also teaches organic farming in poor communities to make them less of a mark to traffickers, and it trains airline staff around the world to identify and report signs of human or wildlife trafficking.

Galster spends most of his time these days in Freeland’s Bangkok office, but the organization is headquartered in Green Lake, Wis., which is where it held the North American version of the Freeland Film Festival (www.freelandfilmfest.org) June 15–17 this year. The soon-to-be annual film festival, which began in 2015, has been hosted in Asia and is set to rotate through Africa and South America in coming years.

It might also seem a bit unusual that a wildlife and human trafficking nonprofit hosts a film festival, but Galster says good storytelling is critical for inspiring change. The more we understand each other’s perspective, he says, the more people will “wake up” and want to take action.

“Environmentalism and human rights issues can sometimes become very political,” Galster explains. “So our focus and our stories are what people from many backgrounds can agree on as everyone’s priorities. It is my hope that the inspiration that people find while attending the festival will bring new hope for people, wildlife, and ecosystems everywhere.”

Galster credits his political science major at Grinnell and Wayne Moyer, professor of political science, for sparking his interest in human rights work. 

“He was so passionate about his work and took such a great interest in his students,” Galster says. “My mind opened up a lot at Grinnell.” 

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