LYON, France, July 12, 2019 (ENS) – A global joint customs and police operation all during the month of June seized large quantities of internationally protected plants and animals, from live big cats and primates to timber, and made hundreds of arrests of suspected smugglers worldwide.
The intelligence-led operation identified trafficking routes and crime hotspots ahead of time, enabling border, police and environmental officers to seize items made from protected wildlife such as clothing, beauty products, food items, traditional medicines and handicrafts.
From June 4 through 30, Interpol and the World Customs Organization, WCO, coordinated Operation Thunderball, with police and customs administrations leading joint enforcement operations against wildlife and timber crime across 109 countries.
A team of customs and police officers together coordinated global enforcement activities from an Operations Coordination Centre at Interpol’s Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore.
Initial results have led to the identification of some 600 suspects, triggering arrests worldwide. Further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated as ongoing global investigations progress.
Interpol has concluded that wildlife crime is “rife, global, on the increase, and closely linked to organized crime.”
“Wildlife crime not only strips our environment of its resources, it also has an impact through the associated violence, money laundering and fraud,” said Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock.
“Operations like Thunderball are concrete actions targeting the transnational crime networks profiting from these illicit activities. We will continue our efforts with our partners to ensure that there are consequences for criminals who steal from our environment,” said Stock.
Worldwide, seizures reported to date include 23 live primates, 30 big cats, five rhino horns, 440 pieces of elephant tusks and an additional 545 kilograms of ivory, including elephant tusks, seized by Kenya Wildlife Service during field patrols.
Operation Thunderball saw the seizure of more than 4,300 protected birds by Chilean Police. Three-hundred-fifteen Saffron Finches or Jilgueros Dorados (sicalis flaveola) being smuggled from Argentina to Uruguay were intercepted by Uruguay customs at roadblocks set up as part of Operation Thunderball.
The Indian Wildlife Crime Control Bureau – Maharashtra Forest Department seized a Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus minor) in a pet shop, and live Parakeets and Munias (Psittacula eupatria and estrildinae) were seized by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau during road checkpoint inspections.
Roughly 1,500 live reptiles and 10,000 live turtles and tortoises were seized, including a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) intercepted by Ecuador’s Environmental Police during special checkpoint inspections in Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas. Yellow footed Tortoises (geochelone Denticulata) being smuggled from Venezuela to Trinidad & Tobago were intercepted by Trinidad & Tobago Police Game Wardens.
Almost 7,700 wildlife parts from all species were seized, including more than 30 kg of game meat.
Authorities discovered 10,000 marine wildlife items, such as coral, seahorses, dolphins and sharks. Corals being smuggled from Greece to France were detected by the Italian Guardia di Financa during customs inspection on a vessel docked at Ancona Maritime Port.
Road controls by the Forest Public Security Bureau in China detected concealed pangolins, bear paws, leopard bones, dried musk products and other wildlife parts.
Also seized were 2,550 cubic meters of timber – equivalent to 74 truckloads – and more than 2,600 plants.
Cars, trucks, boats and cargo transporters suspected of moving protected wildlife were targeted during Operation Thunderball, with searches carried out at checkpoints such as in Kenya where Black African Wood (Dalbergia Melanoxylon) was intercepted by the Kenya Wildlife Service.
The operation saw half a tonne of pangolin parts bound for Asia seized in Nigeria, and the arrest of three suspects in Uruguay attempting to smuggle more than 400 protected wildlife species.
The operation highlighted the continuing trend for online wildlife trade, with 21 arrests in Spain and the seizure in Italy of 1,850 birds resulting from two online investigations.
Fashion items derived from protected big cat species- jaguar, leopard and lynx – were detected online and seized by Spain’s Guardia Civil.
Environmental crime is not restricted by borders, and can affect a nation’s economy, security and even its existence, Interpol warns.
“As clearly illustrated by the results of Operation Thunderball, close cooperation at international and national levels to combat wildlife crime must never be
under-estimated,” said WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya.
Interpol and the WCO have a long history of cooperation, regularly supporting each other’s operations in the field. Operation Thunderball marks a new direction in their partnership, bringing them together as joint operational partners on the frontline to ensure wildlife trafficking is addressed comprehensively, from detection to arrest, investigation and prosecution.
“Such initiatives will be replicated to raise awareness within the global law enforcement community on the gravity of global wildlife crime and to better coordinate cross-agency efforts, including the engagement of civil society groups to detect and deter wildlife criminal networks,” said Dr. Mikuriya.
Slight declines in the seizures of certain species are a sign that continued enforcement efforts are bearing fruit, and that compliance levels are improving.
“For the sake of our future generations and the world we live in, it is vital that we stop criminals from putting livelihoods, security, economies and the sustainability of our planet at risk by illegally exploiting wild flora and fauna,” said CITES Secretary General Ivonne Higuero of Panama, who took office last December. She came to CITES from a position as director of the Economic Cooperation and Trade Division for the UN Economic Commission for Europe.
CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora which ensures that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
“Operation Thunderball sends a clear message: we will continue to work closely with our International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) partners in support of efforts to implement CITES and address wildlife crime, deploying our collective strength and expertise to ensure that no stone is left unturned and wildlife criminals face the full force of the law,” said Higuero.
Throughout Operation Thunderball, customs and police officers, supported by environmental authorities, wildlife and forestry agencies, border agencies and CITES management authorities, worked together to identify and intercept shipments containing plants and other species protected and regulated under the CITES convention.
The global wildlife operation saw the seizure worldwide of 23 live primates, including an infant Langur (Trachypithecus Poliocephalus) being smuggled from Bangladesh and intercepted during a road inspection by India Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and Bengal Forest Department.
Dried Seahorses (hippocampus spp.) being smuggled from Indonesia to Vietnam were detected by airport customs during X-ray luggage inspection and seized by Singapore’s Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.
Luggage and cargo suspected of containing protected wildlife were also targeted at land and airport border points with searches often carried out by specialist sniffer dogs such as used in Ecuador. A Hercules beetle (Dynastes hercules), part of a large insect collection, was seized by Ecuador’s Environmental Police as part of Operation Thunderball.
Ecuador’s Environmental Police (UPMA) in Tandapi (Pichincha province) inspected vehicles passing through the principal wildlife trafficking hotspots and found a little red brocket or swamp brocket (Mazama rufina), a threatened deer native to the Andes of Ecuador.
A lion cub (Panthera Leo) was detected in India by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and West Bengal Forest Department on its way to the United Kingdom from Bangladesh.
Many of the seized species died during the trafficking journey, including Zebra fish (Hypancistrus Zebra) seized by Brazil’s Federal Police airport officers. Six dead steenboks (raphicerus campestris) were intercepted in Namibia during Operation Thunderball road checkpoint inspections.
Coordinated jointly by Interpol’s Environmental Security Programme and the WCO Environment Programme, Operation Thunderball is the third in the “Thunder” series, following Thunderbird in 2017 and Thunderstorm in 2018.
Operation Thunderball is financially supported by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Development and Cooperation, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the United States Agency for International Development, the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative and the UK Government, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.