In society when a crime is committed the victim or their family pushes for justice; but when a crime takes place in the wild the animals cannot speak. There is one group always working for them, sometimes undercover, and those are conservation officers.In “Trafficking, a Memoir of an Undercover Game Warden” retired Idaho conservation officer Tony Latham recounts a case that changed his life 20 years ago. It involved a few Nez Perce, a group of non-Indians and the criminal trafficking of big-game animals out of the Orofino area.
“Even though I was 41 when I worked that case I still look back and consider myself a kid, maybe not a kid
but an innocent,” says Latham, 60. “I didn’t know how bad the ugly side of life could be. … Some of the stuff that happened during that case I couldn’t even imagine.”
He wrote the book to let go of things that still bothered him, he says, but he also wrote it to give the public a look at the detailed cases officers must build in order to prosecute wildlife thieves.
Long-term undercover investigations are launched in the most serious cases, usually involving commercialization. Situations like the killing of animals for the Asian medicinal trade or trafficking golden eagles for their feathers can significantly damage populations. Idaho Fish and Game officers adopt a fake identity and take up residence in remote locations with company that often proves to be dirty and dangerous.
This is what Latham and his partner encountered in Orofino in a case that he writes convinced him that “without laws and wardens there would be no wildlife.”
As a fourth-generation Idahoan, Latham grew up fishing and hunting in southern Idaho and was taught to respect and conserve wildlife. After graduating from the University of Idaho he proudly became a game warden. He learned the basics of undercover work from a former Secret Service agent who worked the Orofino case with him. Latham wasn’t a full-time undercover officer but throughout his career had at least one case going all the time.
Although the events in “Trafficking” are documented in official reports, Latham chose not to use the real names of the civilians involved.
“I struggled with that,” says Latham, who lives in Salmon, Idaho. “When I first considered writing this I wanted to lay their names out. In a sense, a lot of times justice isn’t done. But on the other hand, I kind of laid my own life out in that book and that was my decision. These people are human beings. They have the same emotions as I do, the same right to privacy I do. I didn’t really feel it was right to lay them out there as much as I have no respect for them.”
Latham says those who have read the book have been “taken aback by how much work goes into these cases.” They’ve also been touched by the same feelings of “horror and disgust” he had.
Then there’s the reaction to the punishment, or in some instances, lack of punishment.
“Welcome to wildlife criminal investigations,” Latham says. “Wildlife will always play second or third fiddle in a prosecutor’s case. … If (a case) goes away nobody’s going to complain about that except the officer. There’s no one fighting for wildlife out there except the officer.”
Latham retired in 2009. This is his second book. He’s also the author of the how-to for game wardens “Analyzing Ballistic Evidence, On-Scene by the Investigator.” As a member of Wildlife Field Forensics he helps train conservation officers nationwide.
“Trafficking” is available in print, Kindle and Nook versions online at www.tonylatham.net.
“Trafficking, a Memoir of an Undercover Game Warden”
by Tony H. Latham
301 pages, $14.95