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Undercover operation to save endangered animals inspires graphic novel

The cover of “Fighting for the Vaquita,” a graphic novel by artist Ava Salzman in partnership with Earth League International. (Ava Salzman/Earth League International)

The hand-drawn panels are inky dark. 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 called “Fighting for the Vaquita,” a true-crime tale starring a porpoise, a four-foot-long fish and undercover activists trying to stop illegal animal trafficking.

The artist behind the work is 20-year-old Ava Salzman. The panels unspool a tale of a black market in endangered animals and a sting operation to bring 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 — up to 200 pounds — nicknamed “cocaine of the sea” for the black market value of its swim bladder, an organ prized (erroneously) for special healing powers. Then there’s the vaquita, an even more endangered species of small harbor porpoise, caught as collateral damage in nets set out for totoaba.

By making the scourge vivid, “Fighting for the Vaquita,” released in 2020 during the pandemic, shines a spotlight on international crime rings that have hooks in the extinction of both species, and in other forms of trafficking. For the story of the totoaba and vaquita, Salzman teamed with Andrea Crosta, head of Los Angeles-based Earth League International (ELI), a small nonprofit that investigates wildlife crime and hands over 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 it, and wanted to dive more into issues of environmental crime,” she told me by 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 sketched a comic about the totoaba for another student publication, the Harvard Independent. Salzman, who has drawn 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.

Ava Salzman, the 20-year-old artist behind "Fighting for the Vaquita," poses for a portrait at her Los Angeles home. (Jessica Pons/For The Washington Post)

Crosta, who has been conducting undercover investigations since 2013, was stunned when he learned of the black market for totoaba bladders just a four-hour drive from L.A. A fishing crew typically makes $600 a month from catching shrimp, but one totoaba fetches up to $4,000. “It’s really, really difficult to refuse that kind of money,” Crosta told me. He recalls thinking: “Right, let’s start there. Let’s try to explain that.”

Readers meet a former FBI agent now with ELI and see his team plan a stakeout, and worry as it goes off course. We watch a researcher named Chiara fit the pieces together. We’re inside their experience.

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

Black markets in illegal wildlife products yield profits estimated up to $23 billion a year, according to Crosta. What’s more, the same people smuggling animal parts are invested in money laundering, human trafficking and drugs. By emphasizing that convergence that connects wildlife crime with other major crimes, Crosta got law enforcement in Mexico and the United States involved.

“The [crime] network goes from China into Mexico, and then there are roots into the U.S.,” 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.”

Because of its targets, ELI’s ventures require stealth and patience. Going after top-level, powerful traffickers means gaining trust on the ground, gathering evidence. “We collect a lot of video and audio material, and this is how you really understand how they do what they do,” says Crosta.

A page from “Fighting for the Vaquita.” (Ava Salzman/Earth League International)

A gritty, twisting narrative of a shadowy investigation proved a perfect fit for a graphic novel. It also suited Salzman’s aesthetic. First, she drew in black-and-white and then added watercolors. She and Crosta storyboarded the whole operation—the research, the stakeouts, the meticulous preparation. They agreed this story needed more than a few panels and committed to a length of more than 40 pages; that allowed for the complexity of environmental crime and the emotional ride of a crime novel. “I really wanted to capture that and be able to share these stories in the way that they actually unfold,” Salzman says, “which is full of stress and pressure and letdowns, but also really hard work.” These elements come through in the close-ups on faces taut with resolve or frustration.

Since “Fighting for the Vaquita” was published on ELI’s website, it has connected with readers. “People will just come out of the woodwork,” says Salzman about the emails she gets from fans. But the pandemic pushed the story out of the spotlight. And as vaquita numbers dwindled to just a dozen in the wild, even other animal-protection organizations stopped feeling hopeful of preserving the species.

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

“Transnational crime has not been enough of a priority,” says George Mason’s Shelley, and environmental crime receives even less. Shelley loves the graphic novel because it can help build public awareness and pressure, and shift enforcement priorities of agencies such as the FBI and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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

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

David A. Taylor is a D.C.-based writer.

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