International illegal wildlife trade operation yields good returns


South Africa contributed materially to a global operation led by Interpol aimed at cracking down on a range of wildlife crimes.

The South African side of the operation, under the leadership of the Department of Environmental Affairs, confiscated four live sharks, 700kg of abalone, ivory and rhino horn and arrested 13 suspects as its part of Operation Thunderstorm which took place in May.

The Interpol Wildlife Crime Working Group discussed the month-long global operation against illegal trade in wildlife and timber during a meeting in Singapore last year. Codenamed Thunderstorm, the operation was to target people and networks behind cross-border wildlife crime internationally.

The global operation saw 1 974 seizures recorded and 1 400 people arrested during investigations and searches in 92 countries in a four week period.

Among seizures worldwide were 43 tonnes of wild meat including bear, elephant, crocodile, whale and zebra; 1.3 tonnes of raw and processed elephant ivory; 27 000 reptiles including 869 alligators/crocodiles, 9 590 turtles and 10 000 snakes and almost 4,000 birds including pelicans, ostriches, parrots and owls. Officials also seized 48 live primates, 14 big cats including tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar and several tonnes of wood and timber.

The operation saw eight tonnes of pangolin scales seized worldwide, including almost four tonnes by Vietnamese maritime authorities on board a ship arriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The SA Police Service; the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations (Hawks); SARS Customs; the Environmental Management Inspectorate (Green Scorpions) from the Department of Environmental Affairs, SANParks, provincial conservation authorities and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) law enforcement officers took part in Thunderstorm in South Africa.

Attention was paid to transnational trafficking routes originating at airports and other ports of entry and exit between South Africa and Europe, Botswana and Zimbabwe, as well as to international mail centres and the value chain of rhino horn trafficking syndicates.

Among successes recorded was confiscation of four endangered spotted ragged tooth sharks, also known as sand tiger or dusky shark, at Cape Town International Airport during inspection of a container.

The seizure of the live sharks apparently destined for the Netherlands indicates live shark smuggling is bigger than initially believed as demand from aquariums worldwide increases according to a Department of Environmental Affairs statement.

The sharks were seized after it was determined they were being exported without the required permits in terms of the Marine Living Resources Act and Marine Threatened or Protected Species Regulations. The sharks were apparently caught in Port Alfred. A laptop, cellphone and documents were seized during the operation. No arrests have yet been made and the investigation continues.

Two men were arrested in Daveyton in eastern Gauteng by the Hawks, SANParks and Green Scorpions for allegedly dealing in rhino horn.

The arrest was the result of a two-year long Hawks investigation assisted by Green Scorpions based in national parks. The major aim of the investigation was to identify the criminal supply chain and receivers of rhino horn in Gauteng. Mandla Mashele (37) and Kelvin Malapane (38) were arrested for illegally buying rhino horn, contravention of endangered species regulations, racketeering and money laundering.

Two suspects were arrested for illegal possession of elephant ivory by customs officials at the Ramatlabama Border Post between South Africa and Botswana. The suspects were travelling to South Africa were arrested during a vehicle search. Two kilogrammes of ivory was confiscated.

Six men were arrested in Pretoria for illegal possession of a pangolin. The Hawks-led operation followed a suspect offering to sell a pangolin to a policeman. The pangolin was confiscated and sent for veterinary care.

Three men were arrested in Walkerville, southern Gauteng for unlawful possession of 700kg of abalone valued at R3.5 million and operating a fish processing facility without a permit. Police and Green Scorpions executed a search warrant on the facility. Eighteen thousand units of abalone were seized.

Green Scorpions, customs officials and DAFF fisheries control officers boarded and searched a ship in Durban harbour, while ad hoc tailgate and container searches were done in the harbour area. Dockside inspections checked validity of fishing permits of local fishermen and abandoned catches including mussels and under-sized fish were seized. No arrests were made.

No illegal items were recovered during a search of items at the International Mail Centre in Durban.