More than 2,000 seizures of wildlife and forestry products were made in several countries around the world, including in Zimbabwe, following a month-long joint operation by the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and the World Customs Organization (WCO).
Code-named Operation Thunder 2020, the operation ran from September 14 – October 11, 2020, and resulted in large seizures of protected wildlife and forestry specimens and products, triggering arrests and investigations worldwide.
“Focusing on pre-identified routes and hotspots, Operation Thunder 2020 resulted in more than 2,000 seizures of wildlife and forestry products. In total, 699 offenders were apprehended and at least one Interpol Red Notice has already been requested based on information gained during the operation,” Interpol said in a statement Monday.
It said further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated as ongoing global investigations progress.
Among the countries where the seizures were made are Cameroon, Mexico, Zimbabwe, and India.
In Cameroon, Interpol said customs officers seized 187 elephant tusks (856 kg of ivory) from a truck crossing the border from Gabon while Mexican law enforcement agents rescued an adult female white tiger, a jaguar and a four-month old lion cub in Sinaloa.
In Zimbabwe, police thwarted the transfer of 32 live chimpanzees from the Democratic Republic of Congo while in India customs officials intercepted an 18-ton shipment of red sandalwood destined for the United Arab Emirates.
The total seized contraband in India included over 1.3 tons of ivory, over 1 ton of pangolin scales, representing approximately 1,700 killed pangolins, 56,200 kg of marine products, 87 truckloads of timber (950 tons) and 15,878 kg of plants.
“More than 45,500 live animal and plant specimens were recovered during the operation, including 1,400 turtles and tortoises and 6,000 turtle or tortoise eggs, 1,160 birds and 1,800 reptiles,” Interpol said.
A total of 103 countries around the globe participated in the operation against environmental crime, focusing particularly on vulnerable species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Jurgen Stock, Interpol Secretary-General, said wildlife and forestry crime is the world’s fourth-largest illegal trade — a lucrative illegal business with far-reaching and devastating consequences not just for the environment but also for society, public health and global economics.
“Wildlife and forestry crime often occurs hand in hand with tax evasion, corruption, money laundering and even murder, with organized crime groups using the same routes to smuggle protected wildlife as they do people, weapons, drugs and other illegal products,” Stock said.
WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya said the Operation showed that the success of law enforcement efforts lies in active cooperation amongst all stakeholders.
“The results of Operation Thunder 2020 show that the vital work of Parties to respond to wildlife crime collectively continues unabated despite the challenging global context,” said Ivonne Higuero, CITES Secretary-General.
“Strong, coordinated responses at all levels are needed to address the activities of transnational organized crime groups involved in wildlife crime and to impact on and disrupt illegal trade chains across range, transit and destination states,” she said.
Interpol added that the global COVID-19 pandemic posed a number of challenges to the Thunder 2020 operations, with law enforcement officers needing to comply with a variety of new restrictions and protection protocols.
This resulted in the WCO Environment Program and Interpol’s Environment Security Program coordinating the Operation entirely virtually, facilitating law enforcement efforts via secured communication and reporting channels.
However, five police officers and three forestry police officers were attacked in North Macedonia with two of them seriously injured while attempting to prevent illegal logging activities, Interpol said.
Operation Thunder 2020 is the fourth in a series of “Thunder” operations carried out annually since 2017, which have resulted in significant seizures and the arrest of thousands of suspects engaged in the illegal trade of wildlife and timber species.