“These are literally like gold bricks, that one could pick up and sell,” Eric Goode said in his guest appearance on the Charlie Rose Show. He was referring to the Ploughshare tortoise with its coveted golden shell, one of the three hundred and something species of turtles and tortoises that is rapidly going extinct. The Ploughshare, found in a small region of Madagascar, are traded illegally for their unique shells, and are one of the fastest disappearing small vertebrates in the world. Their numbers are estimated in the hundreds.
Goode is that seemingly unlikely character that steps up to the plate with establishment changing ideas. He is best known as the founder of legendary New York nightclub, Area, back in the 80s, as well as countless other clubs, restaurants, and hotels, including The Bowery Hotel, The Park, and Waverly Inn. He was a staple of the NYC art-infused nightlife of the 80s and 90s, a good friend to big names like Basquiat (who dated his sister for many years) and Keith Haring, and an artist and filmmaker himself, having directed two eerie Nine Inch Nails videos.
Today, Goode spends most of his time working for the Turtle Conservancy he helped found. His methods are often considered unorthodox by the conservation community at large, specifically the marking (or defacing) of the Ploughshare’s shells, potentially making them less appealing to poachers. “You don’t need to be a scientist to be a conservationist,” he says, “You just need to have common sense, be solution oriented, and figure out how to fix a problem.”
Are some species fated to go extinct?
Well, they just don’t get the love the top ten [endangered species] do. For some reason, people gravitate towards a certain group of animals and forget about others. For example, snakes don’t have arms and legs, so why should we care about snakes? They don’t look like us. But monkeys breastfeed their children, so people can relate to monkeys. We see ourselves in them, so we want to protect them. I’m obviously interested in turtles, but I also feel people have to think more about birds, reptiles, fish, and species besides the obvious ones, the megafauna, as they call it.
You’ve been successful for a number of years now and in a position where you’ve decided to help, and actually can help. Do you find more people in your situation taking similar paths?
I’m not on the same level as many people. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio is doing incredible things, raising money for species, specific conservation initiatives, and he started an organization recently. I went to the auction, and he raised something like 40 million dollars in an hour and a half. He is somebody that’s doing something, and I think more and more people are. But having said that, in terms of conservation in general, I think only 2% of all philanthropy goes to conservation. Most goes to issues that concern people. It goes to cancer, or the homeless, which is great, but I think we tend to only look at our issues and not the global problems with all the other species that we share the planet with. So, very little goes to conservation.
How do you measure success, specifically in terms of the Ploughshare tortoise?
At this point it’s very hard to say if we’re being successful at all with the Ploughshare tortoise. The Ploughshare tortoise problem is very similar to the drug problem in the United States, in the sense that we spend forty billion, or fifty billion, or whatever the amount is that we spend, in just a matter of years trying to stop drugs coming into the US, and obviously we’re not successful. With certain species of animals (and their trade), like ivory and rhino horns or the Ploughshare tortoise, where there’s such a demand and people are so poor, it’s very hard to stop that trade. There are people in lots of parts of the world that will pay a lot of money for it, so unless you can somehow stop the demand, it’s very hard to stop that trade. We have to look at different ways to protect that species, or we have to put more of them in captivity and breed them versus trying to protect them in the wild. We do both, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next five years or so they go extinct in the wild.
How is defacing the shells working out?
We don’t know yet. I think it’s probably our best chance because we haven’t seen any animals that have been defaced in the trade, maybe they’re not taking those. But we have to deface a lot more, which is very hard to do, to find them before the poachers find them. Yesterday, I got an email that said there were 20 Ploughshare tortoises confiscated in Dubai at the airport. In that part of the Middle East, they’ll pay huge amounts of money for endangered animals. In certain parts of the world, there’s just a huge demand.
To what do you attribute this demand? Is it a status thing?
Yes, it’s a status thing. It’s like having fine art. There are people that have collections of wild animals and some of the rarest animals in the world, like certain types of birds, or antelopes that no zoo even has. So, there’s a huge demand in the Middle East and there’s a ton of money. It’s like having a Matisse.
I saw one of the videos on your website where a deranged millionaire in Hong Kong grabs an endangered turtle and says I might eat this later. You have a sense that these things happen, but to actually see it, it’s just astounding.
Yeah, it’s surprisingly real. Especially in Southeast Asia and China at this point, there’s so much newfound wealth and people are paying huge amounts of money for a rare turtle. There are turtles in China that people will pay $100,000 dollars because they’re so rare. They’ll also pay $50,000 just to eat certain species of turtle. There is this incredible demand for certain types of wildlife, and turtles are one of those things that people in Southeast Asia think there’s good luck associated with. There’s this idea that you’ll have longevity if you eat it. In the case of Ploughshare tortoises, people like the fact that they’re gold, and the color gold in Asia is a lucky color.
So, in the case of the turtles seized at the Dubai airport, how does that work? Do you get a call in the middle of the night saying Hey, we got some turtles here?
I got an email from an organization called Traffic, which monitors the wildlife trade. Sometimes they’ll email me a photo because they want me to identify what they’ve confiscated.
Does some of the money spent by your organization go to relieving the socioeconomic hardships of the areas where poaching occurs?
The only way that you can really function and work in those countries is to somehow deal with the socioeconomic issues, you have to work with the local people. You can’t go in there with the imperialistic sense of we know, and you guys don’t know, and we’re gonna show you how to do this. Unless you have millions of dollars, it’s very hard to change the culture, but I think it’s very important to try, otherwise it’s hard to be successful in conservation efforts. We hire guards in Burma and in Madagascar, and we explain to them why the turtles have value, make them feel important and convey the importance of protecting the animals. We give them uniforms and we pay them, but it’s not always so easy to make that work. It’s hard when you have virtually no money and you see an animal that you can take and sell for the amount of money you would make in a year. You have to feed your babies and it’s very tempting, so I don’t blame them.
Short of taking that imperialistic stand of ‘You’re wrong and I’m right,’ how do you deal with changing that culture?
It’s case by case, it depends on the country. In certain places, it feels very helpless, it almost feels impossible to change that culture. But there are certain places that we feel we can make a difference with the resources that we have. For example, back to Ploughshare tortoises, you have to do something that people in the conservation world just don’t agree with, something akin to making drugs legal, and the idea would be that you have to breed enough tortoises to satisfy the trade. Basically, breed the turtles and sell them to try and stop people from actually poaching them. That may not work, but I think that type of idea is worth thinking about at this moment. It’s like what they did with ivory, allowing a certain amount of ivory to actually be harvested and sold. A legal quota you allow people to have. The problem with the conservation world is that they’re too conventional and they have a certain ideology. If you try to do something that’s really different, it’s very hard to get people to agree to do it.
Have you tried to do something out of the norm yourself?
Just trying to get everyone to agree to have us mark the animals the way we do was very difficult. When I first proposed it in 2008 at a meeting in Madagascar, everyone said it was crazy that we were going to do that to these tortoises.
Do you have anything else is in the works?
The other thing that we’re doing—and I was just talking to Leonardo DiCaprio about this—is planning a documentary on the wildlife trade. Not just elephants, tigers, and whales, but the wildlife trade of smaller vertebrates to really get the awareness of all the species that people just don’t think about.
It’s incredible. If you ever go to Indonesia or to Bangkok, there are huge bird markets. Birds in Southeast Asia are called the cut flowers of the wildlife trade because people buy birds like you would buy a flower arrangement. They just buy them, put them in a cage, they die in two weeks, and they buy another one. There are many species of small birds that are going extinct. Birds, similar to tortoises, are good luck, and everybody has birds in their house.
I have the unique position to raise awareness by doing a film. What we can do, that maybe other organizations can’t do, is try to use some of our connections to get awareness out there on the extinction crisis. What people don’t realize is the stuff that you don’t even think about is going extinct, like plankton in the ocean, which is starting to disappear, and, of course, you need plankton for the fish to stay alive. It’s all interconnected and it sounds corny, but we need to start thinking about what we’re really doing to the planet, from the tiniest organisms all the way up to polar bears, how it will eventually affect us in a major way.
What is your WILD Wish?
I have had a slight obsession with turtles and tortoises since my adolescence. And just like any adolescent boy, I would love to be able to have sex for as long as a tortoise can, well into my 200s. I was reminded of this wish just this morning when I got my AARP card in the mail.