THE HAGUE, The Netherlands, June 18, 2015 (ENS) – The largest-ever coordinated international law enforcement operation against illegal trade in endangered species has resulted in 139 arrests and more than 247 seizures, including: elephant ivory, rhino horns, pangolins, tortoises, rosewood and medicinal plants, officials revealed today.

Operation COBRA III, conducted in two phases between mid-March and the end of May, drew the cooperative participation of law enforcement teams and agencies from 62 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and America.

Key successes during the operation included the arrest of a Chinese national believed to have been coordinating rhino horn smuggling from Namibia, the arrest of a notorious elephant poacher in India and the seizure of 340 elephant tusks and 65 rhino horns in Mozambique.

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Elephant ivory seized in Italy during Operating Cobra III (Photo courtesy Europol)

Over 50,000 illegal wildlife items were seized in the United Kingdom, as well as an additional 10,000 in Austria and 5,000 in Germany, including large amounts of illegal supplement capsules containing wildlife products.

In total, 37 countries reported seizures and/or arrests. Large numbers of illegal items were seized in China, Singapore and South Africa.

The operation was organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network, ASEAN-WEN, and the Lusaka Agreement Task Force. It was supported by numerous international agencies and organizations such as Interpol and Europol.

During Operation COBRA III, Thai Customs made one of the biggest seizures of elephant ivory in its history – over four tonnes. The ivory was hidden in containers originating in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was en route to Laos.

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More than three tons of elephant ivory smuggled from Kenya is detected by Royal Thai Customs, April 27, 2015 (Photo courtesy Lusaka Agreement)

A week later, Thai Customs seized 3.1 tonnes of elephant tusks from Kenya. The 511 pieces seized, worth US$6 million (5.3 million euros), were hidden in sacks of tea in containers also bound for Laos.

As a result, a criminal network involved in the illegal trade of elephant ivory from Kenya to Laos was identified and several suspects were arrested. Investigations are still ongoing.

“Operation COBRA III is a great example of the collaboration that is needed between multiple organizations, disciplines and agencies to combat organized transnational wildlife crimes,” said John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

“It is most encouraging to see enforcement agencies working together across source, transit and destination States to combat these serious wildlife crimes, which makes it increasingly likely that these illicit activities will be detected and the criminals behind them brought to justice,” said Scanlon.

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Thai officials display elephant ivory seized during Operation Cobra III (Photo courtesy ASEAN-WEN)

Europol supported the operation by facilitating information exchange and coordinating the activities of police, customs, forestry and other law enforcement authorities from 25 of the 28 EU Member States.

Europol Director Rob Wainwright said, “The trafficking of endangered species remains a problem in the EU and beyond. It is often underestimated and not given the recognition or priority it deserves. Poaching and the illegal trade in species are dominated by organized crime groups, who operate worldwide and make huge profits from these activities.”

European seizures included 11,439 dead and live specimens, almost 2,000 parts and products, and over six tonnes of timber, plants and animal parts.

Officials intercepted and seized:
* – 20 kilograms of live leeches and 25 kg of coral in Bulgaria
* – 10,000 dead seahorses and over 400 live turtles/tortoises in the UK and another 300 in Croatia
* – over 90 kg of coral and more than 50 kg of animal heads, horns and other parts in Spain
* – more than 500 kg of frozen eel in Poland
* – over 800 cacti in a joint German/Chinese operation
* – 16 whale ribs in the Netherlands
* – 50 kg of raw, unworked ivory in France

In addition, 100,000 pills of traditional Asian medicine were confiscated. Several individuals have been arrested and investigations are continuing in many countries.

EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said, “The illegal trade in wildlife and other forms of environmental crime are among the most damaging and lucrative forms of transnational organized crime. They destroy habitats and bring endangered species to the brink of extinction with major security consequences.”

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Handbag made of python skin seized in Greece during Operation Cobra III (Photo courtesy Europol)

“This operation underlines our willingness, our commitment to tackle all forms of criminal markets with a holistic approach, encompassing international cooperation, the fight against corruption and public-private partnerships,” said Avramopoulos.

MEP Catherine Bearder founded the MEPs for Wildlife group in the European Parliament, which is lobbying for an EU Action Plan Against Wildlife Crime. “This sends a clear message to those involved in the illegal wildlife trade that they will face the full force of the law,” she said. “It is important that the judiciary now hands down sentences that match the gravity of these crimes.”

Launched in February, the MEPs for Wildlife group includes one MEP from each of the seven main political parties in parliament. Their proposal for a EU Action Plan Against Wildlife Crime would include a permanent fund to go after poachers, a new Wildlife Crime Unit in Europol, and tougher penalties across Europe for wildlife criminals.

Karmenu Vella, EU commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, indicated that the EU Action Plan is starting to gather support, saying, “We have intensified cooperation with European and international police networks to strengthen enforcement against these crimes. We are currently developing strategies for more targeted support for wildlife conservation, and a new EU Action Plan against wildlife trafficking is due by the end of the year.”

“Operation COBRA III once again shows the true global dimension of these crimes but also demonstrates that Europol and its international partners are determined to crack down on wildlife crime,” said Wainwright. “We will continue our efforts to fight these cruel crimes, to ensure a safe environment for endangered species in Europe and all over the world.”

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