Interpol Links Wildlife Smuggling to Organized Crime Groups

Indian star tortoise seized

LYON, France, December 29, 2023 (ENS) – Rare live primates, pangolins, birds, and reptiles; body parts from endangered elephants, rhinos, and big cats as well as protected tropical hardwoods have been seized in a joint Interpol – World Customs Organization operation to stop wildlife and timber trafficking.

The global effort, known as Operation Thunder, involved police, customs, border control, environment, wildlife and forestry officials in 133 countries who worked together across borders. This is the highest participation rate since the annual Operation Thunder campaign was launched seven years ago.

From October 2 – 27, customs and police officers coordinated 500 arrests worldwide and more than 2,100 confiscations of animals and plants that are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

Species are given CITES-protected status because they are threatened with extinction, and any trade performed in breach of the CITES treaty is illegal.

Although the results of Operation Thunder 2023 are still coming in, initial data has enabled police and customs to conclude that 60 percent of wildlife trafficking cases are linked to transnational organized crime groups. They operate along routes also known for smuggling other illegal products.

Juergen Stock
Interpol Secretary-General Juergen Stock, Iran, March 2016 (Photo by Diyarenoon via Wikipedia)

Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock said, “Important and endangered animals, birds and plants are being put at risk of extinction by wildlife and timber traffickers. These appalling crimes not only deprive the world of unique animals and plants but also countries of their natural assets and resources.”

“The costs to communities are even greater, because as this Operation shows, almost all environmental crime has links to other forms of crime, including violence, corruption and financial crime, but also has strong links to transnational organized crime groups,” Stock said.

Among the 2,114 seizures this October were more than 300kg (660 pounds) of elephant ivory, thousands of turtle eggs, 30 metric tonnes of plants, dozens of big cat body parts and rhino horns, as well as live primates, birds and marine species.

A total of 1,370 live birds – such as these CITES-listed psittacines intercepted by Indian authorities – were seized during Operation Thunder 2023

Authorities confiscated 2,624 cubic metres of timber that would fill 440 standard shipping containers.

“As part of a comprehensive strategy, customs plays a pivotal role in disrupting criminal networks involved in the illegal wildlife trade. This is achieved by enforcing strict controls at borders, effectively closing off avenues for exploitation and financial gain available to traffickers,” WCO Secretary General Dr. Kunio Mikuriya said.

Czech Republic authorities intercepted these Golden-handed tamarins (Saguinus midas) during Operation Thunder 2023. This species is native to wooded areas north of the Amazon River in Brazil, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname. October 2023 (Photo courtesy Interpol)

“At the forefront of this strategy, customs employs intelligence-sharing, championing collaboration, and adopting technological advancements. These measures are crucial to stay one step ahead of criminals, thereby ensuring that customs’ contribution to combating wildlife crime is dynamic, responsive and adaptive,” he said.

Interpol and the WCO shared intelligence, coordinated investigations and pooled their resources. This enabled frontline police and customs officers to target, identify and arrest traffickers, including those operating online, as they tried to smuggle animals or timber across borders.

Known traffickers wanted through Interpol’s Red Notice alert system were identified ahead of operations and were then targeted when crossing borders.

Hundreds of vehicles, including cars, trucks, and cargo ships, were searched at checkpoints across all regions. Specialized sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners were deployed to detect hidden wildlife and camouflaged timber shipments. Hundreds of parcels, suitcases, vehicles, boats and cargo transporters were examined.

Ivonne Higuero, Secretary-General, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, December 15, 2022 (Photo by IISD / Mike Muzurakis)

CITES Secretary General Ivonne Higuero said, “The results of Operation Thunder 2023 again show that strong and coordinated responses between parties are crucial to tackle transnational criminal networks involved in wildlife crime. Well targeted, unified and coordinated efforts such as those mobilized through this global operation are exactly what is needed to overcome the threat posed by wildlife crime.”

Now in its seventh year, Operation Thunder is a joint operation coordinated annually by Interpol and the WCO with the backing of CITES and the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime.

Thunder operations are funded by the European Commission’s Directorate General for International Partnerships, Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative, the US Agency for International Development, the US Forestry Service and the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Operation Thunder 2023 coincides with the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference – Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP28) which ends today after high level discussions on how to address pressing environmental challenges characterized by climate change and biodiversity loss.

Interpol Secretary General Stock is pleased with the results of Operation Thunder 2023, saying, “As the world grapples with the devastating consequences of environmental degradation and species extinction, Interpol and WCO are emerging as leaders in safeguarding biodiversity and world security.”

Featured image: Indian star tortoise seized in Thailand. October 2023. On the international market this species can fetch up to Rs 25,000 (approx. US$300). (Photo courtesy Interpol)

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