Mariana van Zeller On ‘Trafficked’ and Probing The World’s Biggest Black Markets

The acclaimed journalist shares what she learned about tiger trafficking and more 

Before the popular Tiger King was released last year — exposing the plight of tigers in the U.S. —  acclaimed journalist Mariana Van Zeller was diving into the trenches of the global tiger trade as far away as the “Golden Triangle,” an area between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, where tigers are bred and sold for their parts. 

In her new show with National Geographic, Trafficked, van Zeller takes viewers to the world’s most secretive and dark corners to look at different black markets — a part of the economy she’s been fascinated by for more than 15 years. 

We know so much about the formal economy — there’s whole organizations, TV networks, magazines, devoted to analyzing sort of every up and down and twist and turn of the formal economy,” Van Zeller told us. “And yet, these black and gray markets in the informal economy, actually make up for almost half of the global economy. We know almost nothing about them.” 

Van Zeller talked to us about some close run-ins with some bad guys on her journey and elaborated on what she learned about the tiger trade and the lack of regulations surrounding it. 

KCM: The show looks very intense! Were there any high-stakes moments when you experienced something frightening, and completely out of your wheelhouse? 

Mariana van Zeller: Yes! With this series, what we’re trying to do is really pull the curtain on all these moments and show how hard it is to get access, and then show what happens when things fall through and when things don’t go according to plan. 

There was a moment when we were filming in an illegal cocaine lab in a valley in Peru, where a lot of the world’s cocaine comes from. Suddenly, we were told that the locals had spotted us, which was dangerous. They wouldn’t want us to be filming there. We had to quickly pack up our gear, and the chemist who had taken us to see this illicit lab, was very scared at this moment. We could see it in his eyes. Surrounded by poisonous creatures, we had to run out of this Amazon jungle area in the dead of night, on super slippery ground. We could not even see a foot in front of us, or turn on our flashlights, because they would make us even more visible. 

That sounds like a major adrenaline rush. What draws you into telling these types of stories?

I would say what really drives me is my immense curiosity about the world, and especially its most secretive and darkest corners. It’s this sort of need and desire I have to connect with these people who we often think we have nothing in common with — the most ostracized and stigmatized people in our society. 

During my reporting, I’ve come to realize that we have a lot more in common than we don’t. It’s truly a lack of opportunity that drives them into these worlds. And I think by connecting with them and putting ourselves in their shoes, we can find solutions to combating these black markets. 

I want to talk about the episode where you look at tiger trafficking. The release of Tiger King last year really spotlighted this issue. Could you describe what you explore in this episode of Trafficked?

We filmed our episode over a year ago before it was released. Nevertheless, I’m excited to see Tiger King out, because I do think we need to do whatever we can to raise awareness about the plight of tigers. 

While Tiger King is more focused on the characters in the wild world of tigers in the United States, our show is truly about the plight of the tigers worldwide. I originally read this statistic somewhere, that there are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. than they were in the wild in the entire world, and that blew my mind. That made me want to do this episode. 

Our journey took us from Asia, where we saw the “Golden Triangle,” where tigers are being bred, farmed, butchered and killed for luxury tiger products like pelts, tiger wine and other goods, and all the way back to the United States where tigers are being bred at alarming rates. There’s been a commodification of the tiger worldwide. And until we change our mindset, and start treating them differently, there’s a real chance in our lifetime we won’t be able to see any more tigers in the wild.  

What does the issue look like in the U.S.? And what can people do to avoid worsening the problems surrounding tigers? 

It is more difficult to adopt a dog in some states than it is to purchase a tiger. It really shocked me. And that’s because there’s no sort of federal national law and regulation in place for wild animals, including big cats, such as tigers. So in some states, there are very few regulations around them. 

The biggest problem is that people are breeding tigers here so that tourists can go and hold them on their laps, or take selfies. That’s what was happening at the zoo that was run by Joe Exotic, and that’s still happening at zoos all across America. 

If you talk to any tiger experts, they will tell you that tigers are wild creatures and you’re supposed to experience and see them, if you’re fortunate enough, in the wild. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have some in zoos. But one thing is clear: the constant breeding of tigers here, and their commodification, is not good for the animals.

Would you say that Carol Baskin, a character in Tiger King who is one of the main characters, and an enemy of breeder Joe Exotic, was in the right?  

She takes in rescue tigers, and says her goal is to run herself out of business. It’s about $10,000 a year to feed a tiger. So when people purchase tigers, and they get too big to live in their homes and too expensive, they will call up places like Carol Baskin’s.

She’s also a big proponent of the Big Cat Safety Act, which would create more regulations around these animals in the U.S. So, overall, she’s been doing good things! 

This interview was edited and condensed. 

Written and reported by staff writer Amanda Svachula.