Police officers and customs officials have identified and arrested 582 suspected wildlife traders in 109 countries.
The illegal sale of endangered wild animals is a global trade with its tentacles reaching far and wide across the planet. That is why combating it also requires global cooperation.
Enter Operation Thunderball.
Overseen by Interpol’s Environment Security Programme and the World Customs Organization, the large-scale crackdown has been the most ambitious of its kind to date, with police officers and customs officials working together to identify and arrest 582 suspected wildlife traders in 109 countries.
During the large-scale operation officials seized nearly 2,000 illegally traded wildlife items, including some 10,000 live turtles and tortoises, as well as over 4,300 live birds and 1,500 live reptiles, according to Interpol. They also rescued 30 big cats and 23 primates. Parts from dead animals were also confiscated, including 440 elephant tusks and an extra 545 kilograms of ivory.
In addition, Interpol says officials have seized 2,550 cubic meters of illegally felled timber (which is equivalent to 74 truckloads); almost 10,000 marine wildlife items, including pieces of coral, seahorses, dolphins and sharks; as well as more than 2,600 protected plants.
“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,” Interpol explains on its website.
“Initial results have led to the identification of almost 600 suspects, triggering arrests worldwide,” it adds. “Further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated as ongoing global investigations progress.”
Operation Thunderball follows two similar recent crackdowns, which similarly targeted global networks of wildlife traders: Operation Thunderbird in 2017 and Operation Thunderstorm in 2018.
The global trade in endangered species and their parts is a multibillion-dollar business, which is largely overseen by criminal gangs with a global reach. Their networks often exploit poverty, corruption and lax law enforcement in developing nations where much of the world’s remaining biodiversity is concentrated.
“Wildlife crime not only strips our environment of its resources, it also has an impact through the associated violence, money laundering and fraud,” said Jürgen Stock, Interpol’s secretary general. “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,” he added.
As part of the operation customs and police officers worked together with environmental authorities, border agencies, wildlife agencies, forestry agencies and conservationists in order to identify and intercept shipments containing illegally traded animals and plants, which are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
“Operation Thunderball sends a clear message: we will continue to work closely with our International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) partners in support of efforts to implement CITES and address wildlife crime, deploying our collective strength and expertise to ensure that no stone is left unturned and wildlife criminals face the full force of the law,” said Ivonne Higuero, CITES’s secretary general.