In Animals (Blackstone, Mar.), screenwriter Staples conveys the scope and horror of wildlife trafficking.

What gave you the idea of using a thriller to educate people?

Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company contacted me because DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Tom Hardy were looking to do a film together set in the world of illicit animal trafficking. Our hope was that a big fictional story could reach a broader audience, not just people who already care about wildlife conservation. During the course of the research, I became deeply passionate about the issue. When it became clear that the movie might take a while to get made, I was able to get the book rights back. I subsequently rebuilt the story as a novel, still believing that I could make the most impact by packaging the information inside a fictional story that would appeal to a wide audience. It was important to me that while the book educates readers, it also invites them to make their own choices about how to respond to that information. I’m a firm believer that art should ask questions, not answer them.

What surprised you the most from your research and fieldwork?

The most shocking thing was how out-in-the-open it all is, particularly in Southeast Asia. There are places I discuss in the book, and that I went to, like Mong La and Boten, where tiger and rhino and all manner of illicit animals parts can be bought and consumed on the street or in high-end stores. This is because combating animal trafficking is not a law enforcement or diplomatic priority. If it were, I believe many of these operations could be shut down overnight.

What does the average person not understand about wildlife trafficking?

Animal trafficking is not a regional issue. It is connected to global organized crime, and many of the key players are also involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, and so forth. Also, there’s a huge misconception that animals are being trafficked solely for their use in traditional Chinese medicine, and people are justifiably reluctant to judge other cultures for their beliefs. However, the criminal syndicates know that they can only sell a limited amount of “medicine” so one of the major recent evolutions in the world of illicit animal trafficking has been what’s referred to as “from health to wealth.” These animal parts are now being marketed as status symbols for their exclusivity. It’s a logical evolution, given that the street value of rhino horn per gram is roughly the same as gold, and you can sell a lot more horn in a bead necklace or in a decorative statue than as powder for tea.