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The Big Picture
Interpol leads crackdown on wildlife trafficking


Georgina Mills reports on recent work to tackle global wildlife crime.

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A joint worldwide customs and police operation has resulted in the seizure of large quantities of protected species across every continent.

Operation Thunderball, which was coordinated by Interpol and the World Customs Organization (WCO), aimed to tackle wildlife crime by stopping traffickers at the borders. The intelligence-led operation identified trafficking routes and crime hotspots, enabling border force staff, police and environmental officers to seize protected wildlife products.

Taking place over a period of one month, almost 2000 seizures were made, and the range of animals and plants seized was vast (as demonstrated in the pictures opposite). They range from a lion cub seized in India to over 4000 tortoises in one container found in Russia. It also led to the arrest of almost 600 suspects, with more anticipated as investigations continue.

The operation took place in 109 countries and trafficking was found in every continent. The scale of some trafficked loads was also large – three suspects were arrested in Uruguay attempting to smuggle more than 400 protected wildlife species.

Despite being rare, the pangolin is one of the most trafficked animals in the world, with its scales being sought after for the Chinese medicines market. Nigerian officials intercepted half a tonne of pangolin parts bound for Asia, while two dead pangolins smuggled from Cameroon were found in Montreal, Canada – the first time they have been found in the country.

The operation highlighted the continuing trend for online wildlife trade too, with 21 arrests in Spain and the seizure in Italy of 1850 birds resulting from two online investigations.

Interpol’s secretary general Jürgen Stock said: ‘Wildlife crime not only strips our environment of its resources, it also has an impact through the associated violence, money laundering and fraud.

‘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.’

Vet and head of policy at the Born Free Foundation Mark Jones said: ‘Operation Thunderball is a fantastic example of what can be achieved when national and international agencies work together and utilise intelligence in order to intervene in wildlife trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice. Nevertheless, the shocking range and sheer number of specimens seized during the operation only go to highlight the scale of the problem.’

Interpol and the WCO have a long history of working together, and regularly support each other on individual projects. However, Operation Thunderball marks a new type of collaboration by bringing them together as joint operational partners on the frontline to ensure wildlife trafficking is addressed comprehensively, from detection to arrest, investigation and prosecution.

Initiatives such as this are expected to continue to ensure authorities worldwide understand the gravity of global wildlife crime. Operation Thunderball is the third in Interpol’s ‘Thunder’ series, following Thunderbird in 2017 and Thunderstorm in 2018, both of which targeted the illegal wildlife and timber trade but included fewer than 100 countries. •

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