Episode 16: Going undercover to save manta rays

When wildlife lover Malaika Vaz discovered that manta rays were being poached near her home in India, she disguised herself as a fish trader to figure out who was behind the plot.

New National Geographic Explorer Malaika Vaz swims with manta rays in the Maldives. When Vaz discovered seafood traders selling manta rays in India, she went undercover as a seafood trader to figure out who was buying them and why.
Photograph by Nitye Sood

After wildlife filmmaker Malaika Vaz stumbled upon manta ray poaching near her home in India, she disguised herself as a fish trader to find out who was behind the plot—a dicey proposition as she pursues traffickers in India, China, and Nepal.

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ILANA STRAUSS (HOST): Malaika Vaz is a woman in her early 20s, and she is very far from home. Don’t ask where.

MALAIKA VAZ (FILMMAKER): I’m going to try to say this without saying, like, country names, ’cause I feel like that could expose me to danger.

STRAUSS: We can tell you it’s early 2018, and she’s in a major city in East Asia.

VAZ: You can hear the sounds of the city all around you. There’s traffic, there’s, you know, the hustle and bustle of a big, booming industrial city.

STRAUSS: More specifically, she’s with a filmmaker in a seafood market inside a shopping mall. People around her are laughing and talking.

VAZ: There was just a ton of different kinds of stores with everything from shark fin to ivory to manta rays to pangolin scales. Like literally every imaginable kind of wildlife.

STRAUSS: But Malaika’s not there to shop. She’s there to investigate seafood smuggling. She talks with this seafood trader: a young woman there with her child. Then Malaika happens to turn around. She notices two people in police uniforms with walkie-talkies. They’re watching her.

VAZ: I’d seen them a couple of times that day, but that’s when I realized that we were being watched.

STRAUSS: Malaika and the filmmaker immediately start pretending to be tourists.

VAZ: To being like, “Hey, let's take a selfie together.” Let's like, you know, just like huddle together and take pictures, and “Can I also buy this beautiful shawl that you have on your storefront,” right? So we had to really, really make that shift superfast.

STRAUSS: Wait, so who could they have been? Like who were you afraid these uniformed people were?

VAZ: They were from the government. That’s the uniform.

STRAUSS: Why would a government not want you to be doing that?

VAZ: You are shining a light on something that shouldn’t be done, and that can often be embarrassing for a government, that can often be something that they want to keep kind of under the rug. So that’s what exposes you to danger. I mean, more than the traders or the small guys, very often we’re scared of the bigger guys—the kingpins and the people who, you know, liaise with the kingpins, the people in positions of power. And in that moment, you know, maybe it could have been just someone keeping an eye on us because we were tourists in a part of the world that isn’t that touristy. But it felt like more than that. This moment still sends shivers down my spine.

(Traffic sounds)

VAZ: I’m going to wait for that car to pass.

STRAUSS: Maybe it’s the seafood traders. They’re out there—

VAZ: They can hear me.

STRAUSS: —trying to ruin the interview.

(Vaz laughs)

STRAUSS: I’m Ilana Strauss. And this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week we follow National Geographic Explorer Malaika Vaz as she goes undercover to investigate the manta ray black market. And to do that, she dons a fake identity and books flights to faraway lands to find out who is selling these endangered animals, and why.

More after the break.

STRAUSS: When I called up Malaika, it was the middle of the night on her end, and I could hear crickets chirping in the background.

VAZ: So, let me just tell what I’m saying first, then I can go back to the beginning.

STRAUSS: OK, so to understand how Malaika ended up on this investigation, you have to know something about her: She loves the ocean. Malaika grew up in India on the coast, and she’s been diving in the ocean since she was 12 years old. She was fascinated by all the weird and beautiful life in the deep. And there was one animal she loved in particular, manta rays. The first time she saw a manta ray, she was swimming in the Maldives.

VAZ: I looked down at this beautiful, like, black shadow coming out of nowhere, just right above the coral reef.

And this animal was interactive. Like, it was curious about me. I just kind of was frozen for some reason, because I wasn’t expecting this massive, giant cloud in the ocean to come swimming up to me. But it just came up to me, and it kind of swirled all around and it was poetic. I mean, this sounds so cheesy, but it was kind of like a poetic moment. And ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with these animals.

STRAUSS: When Malaika got older, she became a wildlife filmmaker. So she was fascinated by a lot of different animals. But she always felt like there was something special about manta rays.

VAZ: They are such incredible beings. They are creative and curious, and they’ll come up to you, and they’re just, you know, really playful as well. And I felt so deeply in love with them. I mean, if I ever got a tattoo, I think I’d probably have a manta ray on it.

STRAUSS: Malaika had dived with manta rays in Australia and the Maldives. And she’d always thought of them as foreign animals.

And then one day, she’s on this filming assignment in eastern India for a film about big cats. And she hears a farmer in town talking about flat pancake fish.

VAZ: And I was like, what’s a flat pancake fish? And he’s like, you know, there are these massive animals that are really flat and they’re being traded, and you have to come see this.

STRAUSS: Malaika wonders if these pancake fish are really manta rays. So she goes to the local seafood market to find out.

VAZ: So it was really loud. There were, you know, hundreds and hundreds of people there just like jostling around, walking through the market. It was also very smelly. I mean, my clothes smelled of dead fish for days after, despite washing them multiple times. You just cannot wash that smell off you.

STRAUSS: She walks past fishermen selling their catches.

VAZ: You had tuna, you had crabs, prawns—all of that. I think I probably saw more dead animals, more exotic marine life there than I ever have in the ocean. I mean, I’ve never seen a bull shark, but I saw five that day.

STRAUSS: And then, she finds them: 25 dead manta rays, lying on the floor.

VAZ: Sick in the pit of my stomach, to be honest. That's what I felt like. I was just shocked at the number of manta rays. The number of manta and modular rays that was just lying there. It’s a sobering sight, when you see so many animals that you love just lying dead, lifeless, and gone. It felt like a waste of life. It felt like it just shouldn’t have been like that.

STRAUSS: OK, so the weird thing is, people in India don’t generally eat manta rays.

Plus, all manta ray species are threatened, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In 2020 the giant manta ray became the first manta ray species to be classified as endangered. Sightings of that species in Asia have dropped by 95 percent.

Trade of manta rays is strictly regulated under an international treaty, and permits are only issued if authorities determine if a shipment won’t be detrimental to the species. And if a shipment doesn’t qualify, it’s common for wildlife traders to bribe government officials to obtain falsified permits. Or they might resort to smuggling them out of the country.

So who’s buying manta rays? And why? The local fishermen don’t seem to know.

VAZ: Does he have any idea where these gill plates are headed?

TRADER (via translator): No idea. No idea. They only take the gills and don’t reveal anything.

STRAUSS: Malaika decides she has to figure out what’s happening to these manta rays. She teams up with Nitye Sood, another filmmaker, and she reaches out to every biologist in the area she knows.

VAZ: And I said, if you find out anything about the trade in these animals, give me a call.

STRAUSS: Two months later, she gets a call back from a conservation group called the Save Our Seas Foundation.

VAZ: That said that, you know, we have manta rays at the northeastern border of India. And this was shocking because these are animals that are found down south, right? They’re found on the coast.

STRAUSS: They’re in some little village in the middle of nowhere, far from the ocean. That means Malaika’s suspicion is correct: These aren’t fishermen selling to locals. Manta rays are being transported across the country for trade. But why would they end up in some tiny town?

So she and Nitye book flights to a town in Manipur, a region in India on the militarized border next to Myanmar.

VAZ: This is a place where you see armed forces personnel pretty much everywhere.

STRAUSS: She goes to talk to some of the soldiers.

(Malaika and soldiers conversing in another language)

They tell her that a trader named Alex recently tried to get over 650 pounds of fish across the border into Myanmar.

VAZ: And they were like, That doesn’t seem right. Why would someone be transporting so much fish?

STRAUSS: The soldiers reached out to the forest department to find out what these animals were. And by pure coincidence, one forest service worker had happened to see a documentary about ocean wildlife. And he recognized the animals: They were manta rays. Which are illegal to transport under international law, according to the CITES treaty. So the army confiscated the manta rays. The soldiers show Malaika a storehouse filled with dead manta rays.

VAZ: So, so, so many animals. And it was shocking.

STRAUSS: Suddenly, finding manta rays in this random town makes a lot of sense. This is a really remote part of the world, and there’s a good chance people out here wouldn’t recognize manta rays.

VAZ: When a dead manta ray is brought into a bag, it looks like a piece of dried fish. You can’t tell it apart from a wild animal.

STRAUSS: It was a pure chance that the forest service worker had happened to watch the right documentary. Had he not, the traders might have gotten away with it. And the border location makes sense too.

VAZ: This is a place with a lot of conflict. There’s been a lot of insurgency in the last few decades in this part of the world. Funding is required to carry out insurgent activity. You do need funding if you are, you know, buying ammunition, if you’re buying guns.

STRAUSS: So maybe insurgents needed the manta rays to fund their activities. But ... who are they selling to? Malaika realizes there’s someone in town who would know.

VAZ: And, I said, “Can I meet with the trader?” And they were like, “Of course not. You’re a woman. How can we allow you to meet with a trader? How could we put you in such a dangerous situation?” And it was this weird form of chivalry that I just did not appreciate.

STRAUSS: Malaika keeps pushing for information about the trader.

VAZ: I’m like, “OK, thank you for that advice. Do you happen to have his number? I just wanted to know,” and they’re like, “We don’t. Thank you so much for coming and taking pictures of the contraband, but you’re done now.”

STRAUSS: So she thanks them, says goodbye.

VAZ: And then I asked the office guy, like the guy who was just doing some paperwork there. I was like, “Can you get me the number?” And he did.

STRAUSS: Then she goes to the local police station and meets up with a policeman.

VAZ: And I give him this number and tell him, “This is someone I want to meet. Could you please help me out?” So we both call up Alex the trader, and Alex picks up the phone and he just wasn’t expecting this because he just wasn’t. So, and he’s like, “The police is calling you here right now.”

STRAUSS: Alex comes to the station.

VAZ: I basically say to Alex, “Can I speak to your trader in Myanmar?” And he said, “Yeah, you can.”

STRAUSS: The Myanmar trader doesn’t speak English. So Malaika, Alex, and the Myanmar trader all just jump on the phone together, Alex translating.

POLICE: Should I hand over to you?

VAZ: Yes.

POLICE: Oh yeah, he is here. Thanks so much.

VAZ: We’re trying to find out more about the fish that are found in India, and where they go, and such. So, do you know anything about that?

MYANMAR TRADER: I don’t know about that very well.

VAZ: You don’t know about that? Have you heard about these manta rays?)

VAZ: So I asked the trader in Myanmar, “Why did you have to have such a massive consignment of, you know, manta rays sent from India to Myanmar—what’s the market? Why like, what are people doing with this stuff?” And he was like, “It’s for luxury hotels. It’s not going anywhere.”

STRAUSS: He says that people at the hotels are eating manta ray meat. Malaika finds this suspicious. She’d been researching the manta ray trade, and she hasn’t found anything about some big appetite for manta ray in Myanmar. She suspects Myanmar is a stop along the way, and the rays are really going somewhere else.

VAZ: And I was like, “Is it not going across the border from Myanmar? I do not believe that Myanmar is the final destination.” He was like, “I can promise you it is.”

STRAUSS: After the meeting, she calls up a bunch of hotels in Myanmar and finds none that serve manta ray.

VAZ: He couldn’t obviously admit that it was going to a bigger market because that probably would mean that he is doing something more illegal than it seems. I mean, taking a bit of wildlife to a local hotel seems more innocuous than being part of a large global criminal syndicate.

STRAUSS: Malaika’s hit a dead end. And she realizes that she’s not getting anywhere as herself. If she wants to talk to traders and get a real answer, she’ll have to pretend to be someone else: She has to go undercover as a seafood trader.

More after the break.

STRAUSS: OK, so if Malaika’s gonna pass as a seafood trader, she really has to understand the trade.

STRAUSS: You had to like, have all this background knowledge about being, like, a manta ray trader. How did you acquire all this knowledge? Like, were you looking at note cards on the plane or what? How did you do it?

VAZ: (Laughs) Well, so to be a seafood trader, you have to spend time with the seafood traders, right?

STRAUSS: So she meets up with seafood traders in India and asks them just tons of questions about marine wildlife and how much different animals cost.

VAZ: And you don’t just have to know about manta rays and sharks. You need to understand every other animal, right? Like the smallest species, because if you don’t, they’re going to know that you’re not a real trader.

STRAUSS: She takes her research seriously. She has to.

VAZ: If you mess up, someone could get hurt. So I really, really had to do my research. And at the end of that research process, I felt like a seafood trader, to be honest.

STRAUSS: Finally, she’s ready. And she knows exactly where to enact her newfound identity. Malaika has been doing her research, and she has a good idea who has a big demand for manta rays: people in China. They use manta rays as medicine. So, are their manta rays coming from India? And how big of a trade is this, really? There’s only one way to find out. Malaika books a flight to China.

VAZ: The minute I landed in Hong Kong, I was a seafood trader. So, you know, I had a business visa, I was dressed like a seafood trader. I had cameras embedded in these glasses that I was wearing.

STRAUSS: Oh, OK. So you’ve, like, gone full-on, just like, spy mode here.

VAZ: I don’t know if I’d use the word “spy,” but yeah.

STRAUSS: You’ve got, like, a hidden camera, and you’ve got a fake identity. Like, you’ve got fake business cards.

VAZ: Yeah, yeah. Completely different business cards, a different name, a different…you know, I don’t wear glasses in real life. So it was just, it was kind of like being in a movie? It was very strange.

STRAUSS: She and Nitye start walking through the seafood markets.

VAZ: In every store we saw, you know, bags and bags of manta rays that were just kept in the storefront, like right there for anyone to buy.

STRAUSS: She asks a few customers what the manta rays are for.

VAZ: People were like, “It’s really good for your skin.” And I could see people with obvious skin afflictions with, you know, skin diseases that were probably caused by that, still saying that this was great for your skin. So it’s kind of interesting how the mind works, right? You want to believe what you want to believe.

STRAUSS: And then she starts talking to the traders.

TRADER (via translator): How much are you looking for?

VAZ: We’re looking for about 20? Ten, 20.

OK, so for the gill plates, how do the Indian people bring it here?

TRADER: I don’t know.

VAZ: You buy it from a wholesaler?

TRADER: They bring it here in person. How they ship it here, I have no idea.

STRAUSS: She notices this particularly big store full of seafood.

VAZ: And I really just want to understand what the numbers were. How much manta ray contraband could I find in the city?

STRAUSS: So she goes inside and talks to the trader.

VAZ: So I decided to be completely wild. OK, like really, really wild. So I said, “I’m a trader, and I want to take a lot of manta ray contraband back home. And I’m looking for large, high-quality produce. Can you give me 500 kilograms tomorrow morning? And I will arrange for my guys to come pick it up and send it across, um, in cargo.”

STRAUSS: Five hundred kilograms is over a thousand pounds. That’s a ridiculously large amount. Malaika knows he won’t really have that much, but maybe she can learn something about the scale of this industry from his reaction.

VAZ: And the trader looked at me and he asked me a bit about my work, and I was able to keep up the story. And he was like, “Let me just check.”

STRAUSS: He ducks in back and makes a couple of calls in a language Malaika doesn’t understand. Then he comes back out.

VAZ: And he says to me, “Five hundred kilos. If you needed a thousand, we have that too.” Five hundred kilos was a wild guess. I just was really pushing it. I probably thought that he’d say, like, no, I have 50. But this guy came back to me and said he had a thousand kilograms! That’s hundreds and hundreds of wild animals. It’s probably like a local species, like a local population.

STRAUSS: By talking to people in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, Malaika learns that manta rays are indeed being trafficked from India—and around the world.

VAZ: And the way the business works is that once an animal becomes endangered, that’s when it’s sexy. You know, once an animal is at the brink of extinction, that’s when it’s more expensive, you know, extinction is becoming pricey. Extinction is becoming very, very exotic in these markets, because the more rare an animal is, the higher the prices.

STRAUSS: Manta ray prices vary. A single manta ray’s gill plates can go for anywhere from 40 to 500 dollars. So, here’s where it gets interesting: Malaika’s encountered some research that suggests manta rays aren’t really part of traditional Chinese medicine. Instead, traders make up the idea that manta rays are medicinal, and people buy into it.

She wants to investigate this theory. So she meets up with a traditional medicine doctor in China.

VAZ: And the question that I asked him was, you know, everyone’s saying that this is part of a long heritage of consuming wildlife, but can you tell me, specifically, do you see manta rays in your book?

STRAUSS: He has this traditional medicine book with him, with thousands of recipes.

VAZ: I was like, “Can you, like, flip through this book and show me where it says ‘manta rays’ and where it says ‘sharks.’”? And he did; he looked through the book, and he was like, “Actually it doesn’t.”

STRAUSS: Malaika thinks she knows why manta rays aren’t in his book.

VAZ: This is a business that’s been fabricated. This is a demand that’s been created by traders. It’s a business-driven trade, and that’s when it really hit me: that even though we often say “traditional medicine” when it comes to the wildlife trade, very often it’s not. It’s actually just sold as traditional medicine.

STRAUSS: So she’s seen the pipeline: from oceans in India to Myanmar to China. But something’s still bothering her. She’s been investigating this trade, but she still hasn’t met the people who are really behind it.

VAZ: Alex and the trader in Myanmar—they were important traders, but they weren’t, they weren’t the head. They weren’t the people who were running the show.

STRAUSS: There’s something she still doesn’t understand.

VAZ: What goes on in the mind of a wildlife trader, in the mind of someone who is running this big syndicate?

STRAUSS: And then, she realizes she’s had this clue all along. When she went to the Myanmar border to look into the smuggled manta rays, she’d stopped by the customs office and they’d given her an invoice. It was the invoice that a seafood-trading kingpin in India was sending to the trader in Myanmar. Malaika still has that invoice. And it’s got a phone number on it, the number of the kingpin himself.

VAZ: So I call up this number, and I said that I’m a seafood trader and I’d like to meet with you because I want to discuss business opportunities that we could potentially work on. And, uh, maybe we could collaborate.

STRAUSS: The trader agrees to meet with her. So she flies to a city on the south coast of India. Her driver drops her off in front of this abandoned-looking three-story building in the middle of nowhere.

VAZ: So the first two stories was just empty and you could smell fish, like you could smell the fact that there was wildlife in there. And then on the third story, there was just an office and, like, lots of dried fish kept outside.

STRAUSS: Malaika walks into the office with Nitye, while the driver waits near the door. There are a bunch of men sitting at a table. One in particular catches her eye: a guy in his 50s. This is the guy she’s been looking for, the kingpin himself.

VAZ: He had this really bass voice, like really, really strong, low voice. And he spoke really, really quietly. And he kind of commanded this aura of respect all around him. So it was just, like, him in the center and, like, six men sitting all around him. The minute I walked in, I was scared. ’Cause this, this…he was a smart guy.

(To the trader) Hello! Malaika, nice to meet you. This is my teammate Nitye, he works in our company. Can I get a glass of water?

TRADER: Yeah, sure.

(Water pouring into a glass)

VAZ: So you’re in the seafood business, right? We are too. We are based out of Goa.

TRADER: You’re from Goa? You’re Indian?

VAZ: Yes, yes.

STRAUSS: Malaika and Nitye sit down across from him. Nitye has a pen recorder in his shirt.

VAZ: So we are…we’ve been looking at Andre Paraesh recently…We’ve done been doing different kinds of trading with fish more, with manta ray gill plates, with shark fin. But now we’re interested in buying more of the gill plates, because there’s a huge market for it.

VAZ: I asked him, “I’m a trader too. Would you recommend getting into this industry? Because you know, I’ve been trading other species so far, but I’ve been seriously considering manta rays as a new business opportunity.” And when I said that, he was like, “Yeah, they’re a great business opportunity because you can make so much money off of them. And these animals are not going to go extinct. We’ve been trading them for years now, and nothing’s happened. We keep trading them, and they just, they’re in the oceans every time we need them.”

STRAUSS: That’s when Malaika finally understands what’s going on in the minds of these kingpins. It’s something she already knew but hadn’t quite faced.

VAZ: For these traders, it doesn’t matter if this animal is on the brink of extinction. As long as this animal is in a position where they can catch them in, like, you know, twenties every day, or like fifties, every day and thousands every year, that’s enough,

STRAUSS: They keep talking, and Malaika starts to feel like something’s wrong.

VAZ: He could tell that I was younger. He could tell that I didn’t really know what I was talking about.

STRAUSS: She realizes that the kingpin is doubting her trader act.

VAZ: Actually, going undercover in your own country is so much harder than going undercover in another country, in a foreign land.

STRAUSS: That’s because when you’re in a foreign country, a lot’s lost in communication. You don’t speak the same language. People don’t know what people in your country are like.

VAZ: But in your country, in my country, um, if you say you’re a seafood trader, a seafood trader looks like an older man, typically, you know. It looks like someone who’s probably in his mid-50s, you know, probably wearing a suit. And in a place outside of your country, you can kind of run with it and, you know, get away with it. But here, he knew he could see through me.

STRAUSS: And the kingpin starts asking her tougher questions.

VAZ: What’s the name of your company? Where exactly is it located? You know, show me your website. And we had some things as a cover, but we didn’t have everything. And he was definitely getting through to us, and he was seeing through our cover.

NITYE SOOD (FILMMAKER): We work in the same company.

TRADER: Which company?

VAZ: It’s called [inaudible].


VAZ: So that’s when I said, you know, “Hey, I kind of have to head out.” And I said, “Thank you so much for your advice on being a seafood trader.” And I kind of, you know, started to leave.

STRAUSS: Just as Malaika and Nitye are leaving, the kingpin calls out to Malaika’s driver.

VAZ: He was like, “Hey, can I just have a word with you?” And “I just want to talk to you about, you know, stuff.”

STRAUSS: That’s when Malaika knows she’s in trouble. Her driver knows she’s not really a seafood trader. And the kingpin might know that too.

VAZ: He could ask me tough questions, and I could probably wriggle my way out of that. But when my driver was confronted with something like that, he probably might have let slip and he might’ve, you know, told them the truth. And I immediately had to come up with, like, a way to get out of this.

STRAUSS: Malaika frantically texts a coworker in another city. She tells them to call her to give her an excuse to leave.

VAZ: I was like, “Can you just call me and say you need to meet me right now? And that, you know, you got into an accident?”

STRAUSS: The kingpin and the driver start talking in Tamil, a language Malaika doesn’t understand. Malaika waits for the call, hoping the driver doesn’t give anything away. Then, her phone rings.

VAZ: So my teammate called me and I was like, “Hi, what's up?” And you know, “Oh gosh, that’s terrible! Can I, I'm going to be there in, like, the next 20 minutes. Can you send me the address on Google Maps?” So all three of us, including my driver, rushed out of there, and we got into our car and just went.

STRAUSS: What would have happened? Like, what were you afraid of happening?

VAZ: These traders make a lot of money from the trade and manta rays and other marine products. So if you are someone who could hurt that income, if you were someone who could hamper the amount of revenue coming into their bank accounts every month, they could…you know, stuff could go wrong. And I don’t know what that is. I don’t know how that could play out.

STRAUSS: Malaika, Nitye, and their driver get away safely. The driver had been stalling—he didn’t give away any critical information.

That meeting really hammered something home: The manta ray trade isn’t really about the fishermen.

VAZ: So often, we blame the fishermen, the people who are at the grassroots level, the people who are actively going out and killing these animals. But very often, these people are just trying to put three meals on their tables. They’re trying to feed their families. But with the bigger criminal syndicates, they’re raking in the money.

STRAUSS: Malaika realized that this trade was more global than she’d assumed.

VAZ: When you're filming in a wildlife market in Guangzhou one month, and then back home in your country, seeing these animals at the landing site, and then you’re filming with them underwater in an ocean in the Maldives, and then you see them in, you know, another part of the world.

I think that global experience of tracking the different parts of the trade really helped me see that this is a global problem. It might have origins in one part of the world. But if we are to tackle it, we have to get different governments on board. We have to get diverse stakeholders on board. Because that’s the thing with wildlife trafficking. You need to have different people coming on board to intercept it at different stages of the pipeline.

STRAUSS: It’s a pipeline that doesn’t just apply to manta rays or end in Asia. Elephants, for instance, are taken from the wild and tortured for years, just so humans can ride them.

VAZ: If you’re someone who’s ever ridden an elephant, not just an elephant, but if you’ve petted a tiger or gotten superclose with a monkey, that could be dangerous in the wild…These animals have gotten to this point because of human interference. They’ve gotten to this point where they’re cuddly and cute and like Instagrammable because of the human hand, which is destructive.

STRAUSS: I guess what I’m wondering now is, like, I’ve seen elephants, like, as a kid, right? Like I’ve seen them at circuses. I think I’ve ridden elephants before. Like when I was really young.

VAZ: Oh, you have?

STRAUSS: I think, yeah, I did. It’s, like, really vague ’cause I was very young, but I’m pretty sure I have. Is that what happened to them?

VAZ: Yeah. Almost every elephant that you see in captivity has either been taken from the wild or it’s been bred in captivity, and these elephants have been trained to not hurt human beings. And that process is gory.

STRAUSS: Ugh, I feel really bad now. Like…

VAZ: No, no, no. The point is that you shouldn’t feel bad. You shouldn’t. I mean, we’ve all made mistakes, but if you could just go out and tell one more person about it, if you can educate someone who might be in the position where they might want to ride an elephant in the future, or, you know, get close to a tiger, or have, like, an iguana on their shoulder for an Instagram picture. If you can educate that person and stop that from happening, then you’ve done your bit.

STRAUSS: Spreading awareness to stop wildlife trafficking might sound like wishful thinking, but it actually works. Remember that thousand pounds of manta rays the kingpin and Alex had tried to get across the border? Well, they didn’t get it across the border. The army was able to confiscate it because a filmmaker had made a documentary about the manta rays, and someone in the forest service saw it.

Governments are paying more and more attention to these animals. In 2014 the United Nations enacted restrictions on the manta ray trade. And then, in 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the giant manta ray threatened.

Laws like these directly affect trade on the ground. In fact, the kingpin Malaika spoke with said he stopped trafficking manta rays, because he didn’t want the army to seize more shipments.

KINGPIN: Manta rays are under scrutiny. People doing the business—they are under scrutiny. Three weeks before, there was a case here. People got caught. I’ll show you a picture.

VAZ: Show me.

STRAUSS: For her part, Malaika is working with wildlife-trafficking organizations to push for more laws protecting manta rays in India.

VAZ: So we’ve gotten a baseline data survey together. We’ve got the research and data that’s required to push for policy protection.

It’s a long process. It might take many years. But we’re in it for the long run.

SOUNDBANK SEGMENT: Hey, I’m Jacob Pinter on the Nat Geo audio team. All year we’re pushing our audio explorations even farther to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world with a segment called Soundbank: Earth, One Sound at a Time. Soundbank brings you the world through Nat Geo Explorers and photographers on assignment.

Today’s sound comes from Explorer Vijay Ramesh. He was studying birds in the Western Ghats in India when he recorded this sound, which, you might notice, doesn’t come from a bird. Take a listen.

(Animal noises)

Now Vijay was close enough to see the animal making this noise. It was a type of wild dog called a dhole. Dholes are native to southern and eastern Asia, and they’re related to other canines, like coyotes and jackals. As soon as he saw this dhole, Vijay started backing away. But in the distance, he heard even more of them. Now dholes make noises that no other dog species makes. Sometimes they even whistle or cluck like a chicken. But those sounds are important because they help them communicate during a hunt. Vijay says hearing those calls in the wild was a truly haunting experience.

Throughout the year, we’ll have more from our Soundbank. Immerse yourself in the world of a National Geographic Explorer or photographer, 30 seconds at a time, with a distinct sound that reveals our audible Earth. Listen up for Soundbank, in more episodes of Overheard. All right, Ilana, take it away.

STRAUSS: Hey, if you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and please consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.

If you want to see Malaika and Nitye’s filmmaking, check out their production company at untamedplanet.in. They’ve made films about protecting big cats, preventing pandemics, and, of course, manta ray trafficking.

And if you want to understand why these animals are so special that they stole Malaika’s heart, check out Nat Geo Wild’s video The Social Lives of Manta Rays.

Plus, we’ve got an article about manta ray friendship. Turns out, manta rays have their own distinct social circles.

That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.


This week’s episode of Overheard is produced and hosted by me, Ilana Strauss.

Our producers are Khari Douglas and Marcy Thompson.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Eli Chen is our senior editor.

Carla Wills is our manager of audio.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music, and also sound-designed and engineered this episode.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorers Malaika Vaz and Nitye Sood.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.

Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

Check out Malaika and Nitye’s production company, Untamed Planet. There, you can see films about big cats, pandemics, and, of course, manta ray trafficking.

Also explore:

Curious how these animals stole Malaika’s heart? Take a look at Nat Geo Wild’s The Social Lives of Manta Rays.

For subscribers:

Believe it or not, manta rays have their own distinct social circles. Learn more in our article about manta ray friendships.