NAIROBI, Kenya, November 30, 2009 (ENS) – More than two tons of illegal ivory have been seized and more than 100 people have been arrested in the largest international operation targeting wildlife crime across Eastern Africa, the Kenya Wildlife Service and INTERPOL announced today.

The simultaneous operation across six African countries led to the arrest of dozens of suspected illegal wildlife dealers, including 65 in Kenya. Authorities seized 567.8 kilograms (1,249 pounds) of carved and raw items of ivory.

This is in addition to the 532 kg earlier seized at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport during the initial phases of this operation, bringing the total to 1099.8 kg (2,420 pounds) of ivory.

As this operation is ongoing, so detailed results from the other five participating countries are not yet reported. Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Police, too, are continuing their investigations.

Code-named Operation Costa, in honor of the late Costa Mlay, a former Tanzanian wildlife director who set high standards of professionalism and integrity in wildlife conservation, it involved officers from police, national wildlife, customs and national intelligence agencies across six countries – Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

The simultaneous operation was coordinated by INTERPOL and supported by the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group. It was initiated as a result of a request made to INTERPOL by African elephant range states to help the continent deal with illegal elephant killings. Planning started in July 2009 for Operation Costa, the second in an ongoing series of multi-lateral cooperative operations against the illegal ivory trade.

With Kenya as the coordination center, all the participating countries struck simultaneously at the illegal domestic markets in a coordinated manner to ensure that illegal ivory dealers who would try to cross borders were intercepted.

The international sweep, which targeted local ivory markets, airports, border crossings and smuggling points, also resulted in the seizure of firearms and ammunition, vehicles, cat skins and other contraband wildlife products.

Most of the suspects arrested in Kenya were caught outside national parks and reserves and included six foreign nationals, local brokers and poachers.

“The success of Operation Costa is notable not only for the sheer volume of illegal ivory which has been recovered, which is among the biggest-ever hauls recorded, but because it also clearly shows the ability and will of law enforcement to effectively tackle wildlife crime,” said Peter Younger, manager of INTERPOL’s Operational Assistance, Services and Infrastructure Support, OASIS, Africa wildlife crime program.

“The illegal ivory trade is not just about smugglers and poachers, there are far-reaching consequences to this and all wildlife crime,” Younger said. “Law enforcement officers have been killed, people are threatened with violence, and corruption and the wider economic impact on a country are all linked to this type of criminality.”

“While taking these illegal items off the market is important, it is not the whole story,” said Younger. “What Operation Costa will also enable law enforcement both in Africa and further afield, is identify the routes being used by smugglers, their connections and ultimately lead to the arrest of other individuals involved in these crimes.”

The Kenya Wildlife Service Director Julius Kipng’etich applauded the efforts of all the agencies involved in the operation and appealed to the public for support in the fight against wildlife crime.

Elephants in Kenya’s Masai Mara area bearing the tusks that attrack poachers (Photo by Joseph Kimojino)

“Partnership is a key element of KWS’ new strategic plan,” Kipng’etich said.

Kenya Police, Lusaka Agreement Task Force and other security agencies supported the operation, which was conducted across Kenya. Fifteen Kenya Wildlife Service field units in areas identified with illegal ivory trade and trafficking in Kenya participated.

“The success of Operation Costa is a testament to the spirit of the new plan,” Kipng’etich said. “The increasing sophistication of international wildlife crime requires an increasingly sophisticated law enforcement response. KWS is accordingly in the process of modernizing and enhancing its law enforcement capacity.”

“We in KWS strongly believe that ivory trade fuels illegal killing of elephants, said Kipng’etich, who called the operation “a blessing to the African range states whose elephants have continuously been a target of this insidious crime.”

Illegal domestic ivory markets have been identified by nature conservation agencies, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, as a major factor in continued poaching of elephants and illegal trade in ivory.

Operation Costa was coordinated by the INTERPOL General Secretariat, based in Lyon, France, and involved the participation of agencies that are members of the INTERPOL Working Group on Wildlife Crime.

Support was also provided by the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, created in 1994 by governments in the region as a mechanism for regional co-operation to fight illegal trade in wild animals and plants.

Hundreds of staff from the police, customs, wildlife agencies, national intelligence agencies and the Lusaka Agreement Task Force were involved in the operation across the six countries.

The German federal government, as part of the INTERPOL General Secretariat Project OASIS initiative, provided funding to support the operation, with additional support from The Humane Society of Canada and the participating agencies.

Operation Baba, conducted in 2008, was the first in this series of operations planned worldwide. INTERPOL Secretary General Ronald Noble has underlined the need for an international perspective in fighting wildlife crimes.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.