The Operatives’ Pete Bethune Talks Conservation, The Dangers of the Job and Previews “The Dolphin Rescue” [Exclusive]
Are you watching The Operatives on Pivot? If not, you’re missing an exciting show about a group of people who are doing what they can for biodiversity. That means they’re finding out what animals are at the top of the illegal smuggling trade and they’re trying to shut that down. They’re finding out where illegal logging is happening and trying to put a stop to that. There are so many habitats and animals that are endangered or on the brink of collapse and The Operatives do what they can toÂ expose the problem and hold the guilty parties responsible.
I had the chance to talk exclusively to Pete Bethune, who is at the heart of the show. After becoming disenchanted with the oil industry, he’d made it his mission to become a conversationist.
TV GOODNESS: In at the beginning of each episode thereâ€™s an introduction that talks about how you used to work in the oil industry and because of that you decided to become an eco-warrior. Is there anything in particular that you saw while working for the oil industry that made you say, â€œIâ€™ve got to stop doing this. Iâ€™ve got to start helping with preservation?â€
Pete Bethune: “Thereâ€™s a couple things. One was when youâ€™re inside the oil industry, the numbers in terms of oil and gas are really well-known. In those days we knew there was about 60 years of oil left and another 40 of gas beyond that. There was this unease about fossil fuels. We knew how finite the resource was, so at the start I went in there to make money. As I made the money I probably became less focused on it and I started to get uneasy about fossil fuels and the very limited nature of them.
What happened was I just started to become interested in renewable fuels. When I left the industry I was doing an MBA in Sydney. To finish off the degree I wrote this 20,000 word project called Alternative Fuels for Transport. Through that I became a real convert to biodiesel. Then I was on this very cool boat and marine conservation gradually started to get into my veins.
The journey of conservation as been a long one. There wasnâ€™t any one moment where I suddenly become a conservationist. Itâ€™s been this gradual journey, if you like, from not really caring about the environment at all, to caring about biofuels, and now Iâ€™ve dedicated the last chuck of my life to saving animals and wildlife.
Thereâ€™s one further point I would make: I do find the oil industry quite appalling, especially in the early days. I remember on one of the oil rigs and we tipped over the side I donâ€™t know how many thousands of pounds of whatâ€™s called mud. Mud is the drilling fluid you would drill with and this oil rig just pumped all of this mud over the side. It probably saved them $20,000 because they didnâ€™t have to take it back to shore and get rid of it in an appropriate manner. I asked the company man about it. I said, â€˜Is it legal for you to do that?â€™ He just shrugged his shoulders and smiled, had a little chuckle at me and went back to his work. I did find the oil industry, the morals of the big companies, I had issues with them and in the end, I was very happy to leave that industry and gradually become more and more of a conservationist.”
TV GOODNESS:Â I love that youâ€™re described as an eco-warrior. What does that mean to you?
Pete: “Itâ€™s interesting. I see myself as a person who fights for wildlife, I fight for jungles and I fight for biodiversity. I donâ€™t consider myself a fighter. Some of the missions have been quite difficult. Some people might look at our work and think, â€˜He probably is a warrior.â€™ I really just think of myself as a conservationist. My job is to go out and expose whatâ€™s happening around the world and to catch people who are doing illegal poaching or wildlife smuggling or burning down forests illegally. The eco-warrior term sits reasonably ok with it, but when I look at it, Iâ€™m a conservationist.”
TV GOODNESS: It seems like youâ€™ve had some extraordinary experiences on the missions youâ€™ve gone on. Tell me about that.
Pete: “Not all of them [are] good, but there is always great satisfaction when you get a successful mission. It might be catching the guy. One guy we busted in the Philippines, he was a wildlife smuggler. On the day we went to bust him, we ended up saving this pangolin, this critically endangered animal that was about to be killed and sent off to China. Once you start getting missions where you save animals, thatâ€™s a very rewarding experience and Iâ€™m very blessed to do it.”
TV GOODNESS: I know youâ€™ve had a lot of tense and scary or dangerous moments. Do you want to talk about that at all?
Pete: Yeah, thereâ€™s a few that come to mind. The very first episode we did we broke into a De Beers diamond mine in Africa. We spent a number of days dodging patrols, trying to film the seal clubbing. Each year in Namibia, they club about 90,000 seal pups to death and then skin them and send the pelts to China.
The diamond minds in Africa are very difficult places. You get caught there, thereâ€™s a good chance youâ€™ll be shot or you get locked up for a very long time in an African prison. You have a very good chance of walking about with HIV if you walk out at all. So we knew it was a very difficult mission. Jack is the other guy who went in with me. We were shitting our pants for the entire time we were in there. We did manage to get the footage we were after. There was no sense of triumph or joy until we got ourselves all the way out of Namibia and that remains, for me, one of the most difficult missions.
Another one was a recent one we did against the illegal logging that happens in Sumatra, which is part of Indonesia. It was a pretty short mission. It was only 3 days, but I ran out of water on the last day. Through the entire mission it always seemed like we werenâ€™t actually going to be able to bust these illegal loggers. Once we got a bit of fresh water, we thought weâ€™d make one last push to catch someone and amazingly, we stumbled over this massive illegal logging operation. There wasnâ€™t any great work of intelligence or anything on my part. We were just walking along and, hello, hereâ€™s some guy doing illegal logging.
It was scary in the sense that we didnâ€™t know what they would do. We were in the jungle illegally and the loggers are in there illegally. But often in Indonesia, the illegal loggers have got the police and army in their pockets. If we got caught in there, thereâ€™s no doubt we wouldâ€™ve been locked up. In fact, there was another mission running concurrently with this one. I had 3 of my men did get locked up and the police started to arrest them. And then guys managed to get out of there. If we had been caught in that jungle, weâ€™d have been in serious trouble. We didnâ€™t know if these loggers were gonna call the police on us or are they gonna come and attack us. There only 2 of us and all these loggers. Are they gonna try to beat us up? Are we gonna disappear? Whatâ€™s gonna happen?
We were really nervous. Once weâ€™d stumbled over them, they didnâ€™t know weâ€™d seen them. They didnâ€™t know we were there. So me and Stephane, whoâ€™s a former French SAS soldier, we just started sneaking up on them. I said to Stephane, â€˜Letâ€™s just walk in there. See what they do.â€™ Both Stephane and I can run alright through the brush. If they start chasing us, weâ€™re gone and weâ€™ll meet back at the rendezvous point 3. We walked up and all these loggers started looking at us. Suddenly there was about 15 of them standing in the camp looking at us. And then they all disappeared, they all ran off.
We basically got to walk through this illegal logging operation. We took a whole lot of footage. It was a pretty satisfying feeling, but when youâ€™re faced with some very dangerous men who you know are gonna have weapons and stuff like that, you take your chances. In this case, the chance paid off and we got the bust. I do love those missions when you do it and prove that somethingâ€™s happening. Itâ€™s quite relevant today when you look at the huge number of forest fires that are happening in Indonesia at the moment. In terms of conservation, thatâ€™s desesecration, whatâ€™s happening in there. They do all these illegal burn offs. We were there at the start of it, showing how the illegal palm oil plantations and the illegal burn off. Itâ€™s all coordination. Itâ€™s not an individual farmer. Itâ€™s illegal loggers linking with the palm oil companies, linking with the army and police in secret. Itâ€™s all one evil conspiracy from our perspective.”
TV GOODNESS: How do you decide what stories you want to tell?
Pete: “Thatâ€™s part of my job. At the moment, Iâ€™m looking at series 3 and Iâ€™ve just come back from Africa. Normally weâ€™ll target an area. Our first campaign was a single mission in Namibia, but all the rest was in Central America.
Series 2 was all shot in Asia. So, Iâ€™d say letâ€™s google â€˜conservation issues in the Philippinesâ€™, which was were we were gonna be based. The wildlife smuggling started to come up and illegal logging started to come up and gold mining. So, whatâ€™s Iâ€™ll do, Iâ€™ll go to look to see if there are some government agencies or some NGOs [non-governmental organization] we can work with on this. As a general rule Iâ€™ll try and work with legitimate enforcement agencies.
This is what happened on the illegal logging mission. I went to Indonesia before the campaign started. I met with their Ministry of Forestry. I said weâ€™d like to come in and cover this. Even off that first meeting, I could tell they were corrupt and had no ambition to go greasing illegal logging whatsoever. So, if we canâ€™t work with a government agency, weâ€™ll normally try to link with an NGO. In this case, there was this organization called Walhi. We meet with Walhi and they said, â€˜Look. Thereâ€™s no point in you visiting the Ministry of Forestry, because theyâ€™re complicit in all this.â€™ Theyâ€™ll lock you up if they think youâ€™re gonna try to do a story on it.
In that case, we linked up with this NGO. They gave us intelligence on where they thought there might be illegal logging and then I got my guys together and we said weâ€™d go and see what we could find out. In this case, itâ€™s technically illegal to go into a national park without a permit. I try not to do things that are illegal, but sometimes it becomes necessary for you to break some laws, and that was one example where it is appalling whatâ€™s happening in Indonesia with the illegal logging and burn-offs, but youâ€™ve got to break a law to actually show whatâ€™s going on. I donâ€™t want you thinking Iâ€™m a common criminal or anything, but sometimes it comes with the territory and you need to push the boundaries to make something happen.
So, to answer your question, Iâ€™ll go to the area evaluating a whole series of issues and Iâ€™ll look at it like is it an issue where I can add some value? The key resource that I have is I have a team of very highly trained former military men from special operations and we have a good skill set and a reasonable amount of resources. So thereâ€™s missions that we can tackle that your average NGO might not be able to. Is it an issue that worthy of a story and worthy of putting in the public domain? So there are some issues that might have already been covered so many times that itâ€™s not worth addressing or there might not be sufficient story.
At the end of it I make a television show that promotes issues and I take people on a journey. If the journey is not interesting for them, then the television showâ€™s not gonna rate and that defeats my purpose. So, thereâ€™s gotta be a reasonable mission for me and thereâ€™s gotta be a story I think is worth telling. So I just use that criteria to come up with potential missions and sometimes they change.
Like in Asia, we started working on an organization there smuggling sea turtles. As we got into it, we realized that they were making a lot more money smuggling these animals called pangolins. Theyâ€™re these cute little things that get targeted for the scales. They take the scales off, dry them, make a power out of them and that goes to China. They use them mostly assist breastfeeding women who have problems with their lactation. Huge demand for this pangolin. We went there to do this story on sea turtles and then we find ourselves embroiled in this. So sometimes thereâ€™s a mission in an episode that comes right out of left field that we havenâ€™t envisaged. Itâ€™s not like our show is soft scripted. Itâ€™s an unscripted, reality show. Thatâ€™s really what happened.And in this case, it was, â€˜Letâ€™s go see if we can bust these guys smuggling the pangolins.â€™”
TV GOODNESS: How do you choose the Operatives youâ€™ll be working with? Do you go to them? Do they come to you?
Pete: “Itâ€™s a mixture of things. So, Iâ€™ve got some friends in New Zealand who are former SAS soldiers. I tap into their network. They work with a lot of military men from all over the world. Iâ€™ve posted on my Faebook page, Iâ€™ve got a couple of security companies weâ€™ve worked. One, for example, is Precision, which is a drone supplier for the military. They use a a lot of former military as their pilots. I tap into that network. Iâ€™ve got some good connections in DC in the military.
Coming up to a season, Iâ€™ll normally look at how many guys do I need and are there any skill sets that Iâ€™m missing. On Series 2, I was very keen to have at least one Navy SEAL on the team, so I tapped into that network and started asking around if they knew of a guy who had an edge towards conservation and wanted to be part of a show. If Iâ€™m hiring a new guy for a campaign, I might start off with 100 CVs and then out of that, you whittle it down to ten that you might interview. I normally Skype interview them and call their [references] and pick someone out of that.”
TV GOODNESS: For the average Joe, for someone who wants to do something after watching your show, what do you recommend?
Pete: “Thereâ€™s a few things. One is, Take Part, the online portal for our network Pivot. They always have action going on where they encourage people to vote on a petition or take a pledge that theyâ€™re gonna stop using palm oil, for example, or write a letter to a particular government minister. A lot of people think these things donâ€™t work, but in the long term that have a definite role to play.
I just delivered a petition with 200,000 signatures to the Namibian government and they are considering it. Thatâ€™s not to say that theyâ€™ll stop the seal clubbing tomorrow, but when you have significant numbers that sign on to a petition, it definitely has a role to play in terms of starting the process of influencing government. So in terms of our show, people should go to the Take Part website and from there help out on the petitions and make the pledges.
Also, I run an NGO called Earthrace Conservation. Weâ€™re always looking for people to come out and help on missions. In terms of the Operatives, Iâ€™ve got these former military guys on the team. Itâ€™s a team of 20 and half of them are volunteers who Iâ€™ve met through my travels. One person whoâ€™s logistics, one whoâ€™s an engineer, a mechanic, a second boat captain who comes in. So thereâ€™s lots of NGOs like mine always looking for talented people who can help out like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd and WWF. They all have roles for volunteers to come and help out. So I guess people find an NGO that has views they might agree with and see if they need some help.”
TV GOODNESS: And, finally, can you preview this weekâ€™s episode?
Pete: “This weekâ€™s episode is the most powerful one we have. Itâ€™s a captive dolphin that is held in the most appalling conditions in Indonesia and the mission becomes we want to try and take this dolphin out of its enclosure and set it free, but itâ€™s in a heavily guarded island resort and no easy mission, by a long way.”
Edited for space and content
“The Dolphin Rescue” description, from Pivot:
Pete Bethune and his team of elite conservationists attempt their most daring and extreme mission to date as they set out to rescue a captive dolphin in Indonesia.
The Operatives airs Sundays at 10/9c on Pivot.
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