Global seizures and arrests in transcontinental wildlife crime operation

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An international operation against the illegal trade in wildlife and timber saw hundreds of seizures and suspects arrested worldwide.

Codenamed Thunderstorm, the Interpol operation ran for the month of May and saw 1 974 seizures and identified 1 400 suspects, triggering arrests and investigations across the globe.

Seizures reported to date to Interpol headquarters include 43t of wild meat, including bear, elephant, crocodile, whale and zebra; 1.3t of raw and processed elephant ivory; 27 000 reptiles, including 869 alligators/crocodiles, 9 590 turtles and 10 000 snakes; almost 4 000 birds, including pelicans, ostriches, parrots and owls; several tons of wood and timber; 48 live primates; 14 big cats, tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar; and the carcasses of seven bears, including two polar bears.

From an African perspective the seizure of eight tons of pangolin scales confiscated is alarming. Just on half of this was seized by Vietnamese maritime authorities from a vessel arriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Two flight attendants were arrested in Los Angeles attempting to smuggle live spotted turtles to Asia in their personal baggage. Both suspects were charged with smuggling CITES-protected species and a transnational investigation is running between the involved countries.

A man was arrested in Israel and awaits deportation to Thailand after a hunting photograph on social media led to the seizure of multiple wildlife items at his home including fox, jackal and mongoose bodies. Follow-up inquiries revealed the suspect was also engaged in people smuggling and illegal employment.

Canadian authorities intercepted a container with 18 tons of eel meat arriving from Asia. Thought to be poached from Europe, the juvenile glass eels were reared in Asia before dispatch to North American markets for consumption.

The second in the global “Thunder” series initiated by the Interpol Wildlife Crime Working Group, Operation Thunderstorm was co-ordinated by Interpol and the World Customs Organisation (WCO) in conjunction with the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), which includes the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretariat, UNODC and the World Bank
“Operation Thunderstorm saw significant seizures at global level, showing co-ordinated global operations can maximise impact,” Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said.
“By revealing how wildlife trafficking groups use the same routes as criminals in other crime areas – often hand in hand with tax evasion, corruption, money laundering and violent crime – Operation Thunderstorm sends a clear message to wildlife criminals the world’s law enforcement community is homing in on them,” he added.

Investigative crime intelligence gathered ahead of the operation helped target specific hotspots for action, including land and airport border points and wildlife parks.

Cars, trucks, boats and cargo transporters suspected of moving illicit products were targeted with searches carried out by officers, often with specialist sniffer dogs and x-ray scanners.
“By leveraging the global network of worldwide environmental law enforcement experts and the customs community’s commitment to protecting wildlife, WCO and its partners illustrated the power and effectiveness of international co-operation in keeping our natural heritage safe, both now and for future generations,” WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya said.
“Operation Thunderstorm demonstrates pooling transnational law enforcement collaboration in the field, sees WCO and Interpol contribute to making sure borders everywhere divide criminals but connect customs and law enforcement as a whole to make the world a safer place,” Mikuriya said.

Results will be analysed globally to generate intelligence for use as guidance in future national, regional and international law enforcement efforts.