Washington - Over 26 days in June, world law enforcement officers recovered dolphins and sharks, lion and tiger cubs, nearly two dozen primates and more than 10,000 reptiles, birds and marine animals, Interpol said on Wednesday, announcing the results of a major operation against wildlife traffickers.
The campaign, called Operation Thunderball, was coordinated by Interpol and the World Customs Organization and spanned 109 countries. Twenty-one people were arrested in Spain, three people were arrested in Uruguay and nearly 600 people were identified as suspects in wildlife and timber trafficking, according to Interpol.
In all, the world agencies and local authorities carried out almost 2,000 seizures, including thousands of live plants and animals, half a ton of ivory and more than 70 truckloads of timber.
Ginette Hemley, the senior vice president for wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, called the scope of the operation “breathtaking,” and said it “underscores why international cooperation is so important to addressing this deadly criminal activity.”
Among the 30 big cats recovered: a caged white tiger cub hidden in a pickup van in Mexico and a lion cub en route from Bangladesh to Britain. A snapping turtle turned up at a roadside checkpoint in Ecuador, and more than 4,000 Horsefield tortoises were found in a shipping container in transit from Kazakhstan.
In India, dozens of parakeets were discovered packed tightly in a cage, and the authorities in Uruguay found a cardboard box crammed with saffron finches smuggled from Argentina.
The scale of the seizures suggested the enormity of the problem posed by wildlife trafficking, and how it has been complicated by the internet: Through only two online investigations, Interpol said, the authorities were able to seize 1,850 birds in Italy.
“The biggest challenge we face is dismantling the sophisticated crime networks that drive the illegal wildlife trade, but this case shows we are making progress,” Hemley said.
Last year the trafficking watchdog said that more than 1,500 listings for live animals, many of them protected, were found on Facebook, and in April, Indonesian police said smugglers had used the site to sell dozens of Komodo dragons for thousands of dollars each.
“Wildlife crime not only strips our environment of its resources, it also has an impact through the associated violence, money laundering and fraud,” Interpol’s secretary-general, Jurgen Stock, said in a statement.
He said that the operation was an example of “concrete actions” to counter international crime networks.
The World Customs Organisation said in a statement that “slight declines in the seizures of certain animals” were a sign that the anti-trafficking campaign was “bearing fruit.”
But the operation’s results also exposed how law enforcement officials have struggled to deter poachers and smugglers. The WCO said that half a ton of pangolin parts were seized in Nigeria en route to Asia, where there are lucrative black markets for the anteaterlike animal: Its scales are ground and used for traditional Chinese medicine, its meat is served in restaurants and it can reap millions of dollars for traffickers.
Nine tons of pangolin scales, estimated to be worth nearly $8 million, were intercepted in February in Hong Kong. The city has become a major hub of wildlife trafficking, supplying a growing appetite among China’s middle and upper class for goods derived from endangered species in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.
And the agencies said they had seized five rhino horns and 440 pieces of elephant tusks, signs that poaching of both animals remains a pervasive problem, even in Botswana, long considered a refuge for elephants in Africa.
Susan Lieberman, the vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that while the Interpol operation was a step in the right direction, the local authorities have to pursue prosecutions.
“This massive disruption of criminal networks is key to saving endangered wildlife across the globe,” she said in a statement. “But seizures and arrests are only the first step - governments now must follow up with strong, meaningful prosecutions.”