Graphic novelist sheds light on marine life trafficking

The hand-drawn panels are inky black. The plot is a thriller. It’s a graphic novel presented in a familiar style, but the subject matter is far from typical. It’s titled “Fighting for the Vaquita,” a true crime story featuring a porpoise, a four-foot-long fish, and undercover militants trying to stop illegal animal trafficking.

The artist behind the artwork is 20-year-old Ava Salzman. The panels tell the story of a black market for endangered animals and an undercover operation to bring the smugglers to justice. This story actually involves two endangered species, both in the Gulf of California off Baja California, Mexico. The totoaba is a large fish – weighing up to 200 pounds – nicknamed “cocaine of the sea” for the market value of its swim bladder, an organ prized (mistakenly) for its special healing powers. Then there is the vaquita, an even more endangered species of lesser harbor porpoise caught as collateral damage in nets meant for the totoaba.

Bringing the plague alive, “Fighting for the Vaquita,” released in 2020 during the pandemic, shines a spotlight on international criminal networks that have hooks into the extinction of both species, and other forms of trafficking. For the totoaba and vaquita story, Salzman teamed up with Andrea Crosta, head of the Los Angeles-based Earth League International (ELI), a small nonprofit that investigates wildlife crime and entrusts its research to government agencies.

Their partnership began during Salzman’s freshman year at Harvard University, when she saw a documentary about Crosta’s work, “Sea of ​​Shadows.” “I was really, really struck by this and wanted to delve more into environmental crime issues,” she told me over video chat. She interviewed Crosta about ELI’s work for the Harvard Political Review, a student publication. The story lingered with her long after she submitted her article. On a whim, she drew a comic about totoaba for another student publication, the Harvard Independent. Salzman, who has been drawing comics since elementary school, shared it with Crosta and it resonated. He asked if she was interested in telling the story in a new way.

Crosta, who has been conducting covert investigations since 2013, was stunned when he learned of the black market in totoaba bladders just a four-hour drive from Los Angeles. . “It’s really, really hard to turn down that kind of money,” Crosta told me. He remembers thinking, “Well, let’s start there. Let’s try to explain this.

Readers meet a former FBI agent now with ELI and see his team planning a stakeout, and worry as it goes off the rails. We watch a researcher named Chiara put the pieces together. We are in their experience.

The graphic novel format allowed Salzman to balance the factual integrity of ELI’s operations with the anonymity required for his work. “We consider ourselves an intelligence agency,” Crosta explained via video chat.

Black markets for illegal wildlife products generate profits estimated at $23 billion a year, according to Crosta. Additionally, the same people who smuggle animal parts are invested in money laundering, human trafficking, and drugs. Focusing on this convergence that links wildlife crime to other major crimes, Crosta has involved law enforcement in Mexico and the United States.

“The [crime] The network goes from China to Mexico and then there are roots in the United States,” Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, told me. “Andrea’s investigations that link this activity to other activities like drugs are so crucial.”

Due to its objectives, ELI’s businesses require stealth and patience. Tracking down powerful high profile traffickers means gaining trust in the field, gathering evidence. “We collect a lot of video and audio material, and that’s how you really understand how they do what they do,” says Crosta.

A gritty, twisted tale of a dark investigation turned out to be a perfect fit for a graphic novel. It also suited Salzman’s aesthetic. She first draws in black and white then adds watercolours. She and Crosta scripted the entire operation – the research, the layouts, the meticulous preparation. They agreed that this story required more than a few panels and committed to a length of over 40 pages; this allowed for the complexity of environmental crime and the emotional spin of a crime novel. “I really wanted to capture that and be able to share these stories the way they actually unfold,” Salzman says, “which is full of stress and pressure and disappointment, but also really hard work.” These elements shine through in close-ups of faces tense with resolve or frustration.

Ever since “Fighting for the Vaquita” was posted on ELI’s website, he’s been connecting with readers. “People are just going to come out of the woodwork,” Salzman says of the emails she receives from fans. But the pandemic has pushed the story out of the spotlight. And as the number of vaquitas dwindled to just a dozen in the wild, even other animal welfare organizations lost hope of preserving the species.

Then, a few months ago, Mexican authorities made some high-profile arrests. They accused half a dozen people of poaching as well as smuggling methamphetamine and money⁠. A Mexico City prosecutor called and thanked ELI for the leads, according to an official announcement from the prosecutor’s office. While the case has grown to ensnare bigger money laundering and human trafficking actors, Crosta says, “they all started from totoaba, all of them.” the the arrests are “inspiring”, says Salzman, “but it’s also a signal that we need to keep working.”

“Transnational crime has not been given enough priority,” says Shelley of George Mason, and environmental crime receives even less. Shelley loves the graphic novel because it can help raise awareness and pressure the public, and change the law enforcement priorities of agencies like the FBI and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Salzman, now a junior majoring in folklore and mythology, sees the potential for graphic novels to portray other complex, layered true-crime stories, and wants to do more; “they allow so much artistic freedom – just you, your hand and the page.”

“People are seeing what graphic novels and graphic novel storytelling can do,” she says. “It’s a great reminder.”

David A. Taylor is a DC-based writer.

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