Road inspections by Mexico’s Fiscalia General de la Republica during Operation Thunderball intercepted this white tiger cub concealed in a pick-up van. Photo provided by INTERPOL

Largest Wildlife Trafficking Sting Exposes Organized Crime’s Latest Big Business

A joint worldwide customs and police operation has resulted in the seizure of large quantities of protected flora and fauna across every continent. Throughout June, 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.

The intelligence-led operation identified trafficking routes and crime hotspots ahead of time, enabling border, police and environmental officers to seize protected wildlife products ranging from live big cats and primates to timber, marine wildlife and derived merchandise such as clothing, beauty products, food items, traditional medicines and handicrafts.

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 almost 600 suspects, triggering arrests worldwide. Further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated as ongoing global investigations progress. Operation Thunderball seizures reported to date include:

  • 23 live primates;
  • 30 big cats and large quantities of animal parts;
  • 440 pieces of elephant tusks and an additional 545 Kg of ivory;
  • Five rhino horns;
  • More than 4,300 birds;
  • Just under 1,500 live reptiles and nearly 10,000 live turtles and tortoises;
  • Almost 7,700 wildlife parts from all species, including more than 30 kg game meat;
  • 2,550 cubic meters of timber (equivalent to 74 truckloads);
  • More than 2,600 plants;
  • Almost 10,000 marine wildlife items, such as coral, seahorses, dolphins and sharks.

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.

“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.”

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 WCO Secretary General Dr Kunio 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 Ivonne Higuero, CITES Secretary General.

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.

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 flora and other species protected and regulated under the CITES convention.

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 as a deliverable of the ICCWC, the US 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.

Thunderball is not the first operation of its kind this year. In April and May, an international operation against the illegal trade in reptiles saw thousands of seizures worldwide and almost 200 suspects identified through coordinated information sharing.

Operation Blizzard involved agencies from 22 countries and resulted in seizures ranging from live animals to high-end fashion products.

The operation has already led to more than 4,400 seizures and the identification of more than 180 suspects, triggering arrests and investigations worldwide. With six arrests in Italy and another six in Spain, further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated as investigations continue.

Operation Blizzard seizures to date include:

  • some 4,400 live animals seized, including 20 crocodiles and alligators, 2,700 turtles and tortoises, as well as 1,500 snakes, lizards and geckos;
  • 6 Kenyan Sand Boa snakes found in air cargo in the United States as well as two pythons in Western Australia;
  • boas, turtles, tortoises and geckos seized from a pet shop and private residence in Israel;
  • 150 products derived from reptiles, including handbags, wallets, watchstraps, medicines and taxidermy products were confiscated;
  • live parrots, owls, falcons, swans, as well as elephant ivory and bush meat products were also seized during the operation.

Operation Blizzard was jointly coordinated by INTERPOL and Europol, in close collaboration with national agencies such as New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, to enhance international efforts in tackling the illegal trade in reptiles.

“The illegal trade in reptiles has close associations with organized crime – Operation Blizzard sends a clear message to criminals that the global law enforcement community is homing in on them,” said Daoming Zhang, INTERPOL’s Assistant Director in charge of Environmental Security.

Globally coordinated police operations like Thunderball and Blizzard are now at the forefront of environmental preservation. But despite the various efforts made, the threat of environmental crime remains high.

The same routes used to smuggle wildlife across countries and continents are often used to traffic weapons, drugs and people. Environmental crime now occurs on an industrial, transnational scale and threatens national and regional security. It results in cross-border incursions with networks involved in various other organized criminal activities such as money laundering and terrorism funding.

With environmental criminals estimated to generate between USD 110 and 281 billion in illicit profits each year, in April G7 interior ministers called for stronger efforts to fight environmental crime through increased cooperation and information sharing with INTERPOL.

Prior to this, in October 2018, 80 countries and other stakeholders agreed on a renewed global commitment to tackle wildlife crime, recognizing the importance of increased political support at the highest levels to combat illegal trade in wildlife. The declaration adopted at the 2018 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade conference describes the impact of illegal trade in wildlife; calls for tackling the illegal trade in wildlife as a serious, organized crime; recognizes the need to address demand for illegal wildlife products; and recommends partnerships to combat wildlife crime.

The Global Environment Facility has increased its funding to combat illegal wildlife trafficking and trade by US$37 million over the next four years, an increase of nearly 29 percent. The funding will support countries in Africa and Asia to prevent wildlife poaching and illegal wildlife trade and help countries to reduce consumer demand for species and their products.

For too long, illegal wildlife trade has fallen under the radar, allowing links with organized crime and terror groups to develop and go undetected. Recent co-ordinated action, like operations Thunderball and Blizzard, along with additional funding and renewed efforts at government level around the world, will go some way to curtailing this lucrative crime.

 

Kylie Bielby has 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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