Azzedine Downes

For saving the animals.

Azzedine Downes
Fair game: Azzedine Downes is enlisting drones and other technology to help make poachers an endangered species. [Illustration: Andrea Minini]

“So much of what wildlife faces is not a wildlife management problem, it’s a human behavioral problem,” says Azzedine Downes. Through his leadership, IFAW is finding creative ways to prevent wildlife-related crime. Here are a few:

  1. Downes is collaborating with government agencies and military personnel to use drones, satellites, and analytical modeling to spot poachers before they strike, and IFAW recently announced a pilot in Kenya to map the area’s poaching ecosystem.
  2. A 2014 IFAW investigation uncovered 33,006 endangered-animal products being sold across 280 websites in just a six-week time period. Such reports have influenced heavy-hitting e-commerce sites like Alibaba to establish zero-tolerance policies. Now Downes is focusing on trading via mobile messaging platforms such as Tencent’s WeChat. He says the awareness campaign is paying off. “Younger people in China are saying, ‘Now I know, and I’m much more likely not to buy ivory.’”
  3. To protect roaming elephants outside Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, Downes led a partnership with the locals to let IFAW lease 16,000 acres of land to create an animal conservancy, which will in turn give back to the community by attracting eco-friendly tourism.

Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

I like to read historical fiction in addition to nonfiction. At the end of the day, the work I do is largely about changing human behavior than it is about wildlife management. In almost every case, human behavior is at the root of so many animal problems and the better insight I have into people, the better I will be able to help animals.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I look out my bedroom window. I’m always looking for the slightest change in my environment, which these days means has any snow melted! I want to see if there are any changes in the trees, flowers, or the street. Being from New England, I guess I am also just checking the weather.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

My favorite Twitter feed is Weird Things To Know. I am always looking for some new angle that I can bring to my work. Sometimes the most obscure insights get me thinking about what we could do differently. If I only have exposure to conservation and animal welfare-related feeds, it can get pretty self-reinforcing. It can also get rather depressing because the news is often so dire.

How do you keep track of everything you have to do? Can you send us a snapshot of your to-do list?

The greatest tool I have is my phone. For me, if it’s not on my phone, it doesn’t exist. That includes schedules, daily reminders, email, texts, and apps. I rarely use to-do lists but will often send myself an email with just a reminder in the subject line. I did once famously (at least at home it was famous) remark one Saturday afternoon that “I forgot to go to Russia.” My kids thought that was the funniest thing they had ever heard. Plans change.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

I love to garden. I can spend days in the garden if I had the time. The combination of seeing something grow and creating a palette of colorful beauty at the same time is extraordinary to me. No detail related to the growth of a plant is too small to fascinate me.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

People who practice random acts of kindness. But if I had to name someone, I would say that it is Stephen Hawking. I love to read about quantum physics, space, and black holes. To think what the mind is capable of grasping, even when the body has failed, cannot help but inspire.


About the author

Jessica Hullinger is a London-based journalist who covers science, health, and innovation. She currently serves as a Senior Editor at