By Rachel Fobar, National Geographic
Global police and customs officials have concluded the most widespread environmental crime operation ever organized, involving 109 countries and resulting in nearly 2,000 seizures of protected wildlife, including 440 ivory pieces, more than 4,300 birds, and nearly 10,000 live turtles and tortoises, according to Interpol.
The effort, coordinated by Interpol and the World Customs Organization (WCO), identified nearly 600 suspects and spurred arrests around the world. Dubbed Operation Thunderball, it’s the third in a series—Interpol executed Operation Thunderbird in 2017 and Operation Thunderstorm in 2018, both of which targeted the illegal wildlife and timber trade and resulted in thousands of seizures.
The illegal wildlife trade is a multibillion dollar criminal enterprise. It’s the primary threat to the survival of numerous species, including African elephants, which are targeted for their ivory; pangolins, which are targeted for use in traditional Chinese medicine, and many species of birds and reptiles, which enter the exotic pet trade. Wildlife crime is linked to corruption, money laundering, and other forms of organized crime. (Learn more about poaching here.)
Wildlife crime has spiked in recent years, which is why Interpol and the WCO decided to join forces, says Roux Raath, WCO’s environment program manager. “The demand [for wildlife products] is increasing, the world population is increasing,” he says.
Over the month of June, officials seized 23 live primates, 30 big cats, more than a ton of pangolin scales, 74 truckloads of timber, more than 2,600 plants, and nearly 10,000 marine species. By number of countries, this was the largest operation targeting wildlife crime in history. Previous operations in the “Thunder” series involved fewer than 100 countries. (Also read about Operation Blizzard, the largest illegal reptile bust in the world to date.)
The operation focused on identifying trafficking routes and crime hot spots ahead of time, with the aim of preventing wildlife crime from occurring. “When we start working, most of the time, it’s too late in terms of conservation,” says Henri Fournel, Interpol’s coordinator of environmental security. “We just want to make it clear to the criminals that…we are just watching them.”
Operation Thunderball is “not a numbers game,” says the WCO’s Raath. The number of seizures has gone down over the years, which means law enforcement efforts are leading to the “dismantling of criminal networks,” he says.
“If we keep the pressure on and if we clamp down on specific routes and specific countries,” Raath says, “that forces criminals to either look at different commodities or either different countries, different routes….It’s changing the patterns.”
This is the key to dealing with wildlife crime, says Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society—it’s about targeting the “criminal networks that are driving this horrendous crime,” not individuals. She says it’s “fantastic” that Interpol and the WCO are aiming to disrupt criminal networks, and to be most effective, the countries have to follow up with prosecutions.
“A lot of times we see seizures, and then nothing happens,” she says. “People have to go to jail, particularly the people running these networks—the spider in the center of the web.”
Officials hope the scale of this operation and the new collaboration between Interpol and the WCO, two of the largest enforcement organizations in the world, will set a precedent for working together in the future.
“It is not something that we aim at doing only for once and for the sake of having a nice press release,” Fournel says. “This is, for us, the foundation of a new era where customs and police will work hand-in-hand against wildlife and timber traffickers.”