Operation Thunder: Customs records 1,000 seizures of wildlife, timber products worldwide

More and more countries set up specialized wildlife crime units. Courtesy of UK Border Force

Customs, Police, financial intelligence units and wildlife and forestry enforcement agencies have seized 1,000 cargos of endangered species of forest products and 300 suspects in connection with the seizures globally under an operation codenamed Thunder 2021.

The World Customs Organisation (WCO) disclosed that the operation which took place from October 1 to 30, 2021 involved searching of thousands of cars, trucks, boats and cargo transporters suspected of transporting protected wildlife and timber, often with specialist sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners.

The operation was supervised by the WCO and INTERPOL and was the largest in which 118 countries participated since the inception of the “Thunder” operation series in 2017.

The searches targeted illegally traded CITES-listed specimens, ranging from timber to live big cats, primates, reptiles, and birds, as well as derivative products such as clothing, beauty products, food items, traditional medicines and handicrafts.

CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement to ensure that trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Trade performed in breach of CITES is illegal.

Environmental crime has a direct impact on climate change, harms the livelihoods of millions of people, results in forced migration and can trigger the spread of animal-to-human viruses (zoonotic diseases).

According to the WCO, the total worldwide seizures reported to date include 478 kg of ivory and 487 kg of ivory-derived products, 75 big cat parts, 29 live big cats, 856 kg pangolin scales, 531 turtles and tortoises, 171 birds, 336 reptiles, 4,843 kg marine products, including corals, 75,320 kg of timber, including 313m3 of rosewood and 1.4 million plant-derived items.

Over 75 tonnes of timber were seized during Operation THUNDER 2021. Courtesy of Nigeria Customs Service

The WCO stated that further arrests and prosecutions are foreseen globally as investigations continue to unfold.

“With criminals trafficking endangered species along the same routes they use to smuggle other illicit goods, Customs is strategically placed at borders to intercept illegally traded CITES-listed products,” said WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya

“Large scale cross-border operations such as Operation Thunder 2021 illustrate the benefits and impact global law enforcement cooperation has in deterring wildlife crime, putting its perpetrators behind bars, and raising awareness on its devastating effects,” added Mikuriya.

“Organized crime networks are generating billions in illicit profits every year, at significant cost to our environment as well as the associated impacts of fraud, corruption and violence,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

“We are seeing the continued globalization of crime, which means only an international response can be effective, as seen with this latest Operation Thunder. Every one of our 195 member countries has a role to play in combating this threat, either directly or in the follow-up investigations,” added Secretary General Stock.

Costa Rica Customs seized a shipment without proper documentation of 113 live orchids. Courtesy of Costa Rica Customs

On the border with Mozambique, South African authorities seized 460 kg of abalone bound for China. Abalone mollusks are at critically low levels because of over-exploitation.

Myanmar authorities made 13 seizures nationwide totaling 68 tonnes of restricted and endangered hardwood species.

Polish authorities intercepted 29 illegal caviar shipments. International trade in all species of sturgeons is CITES-regulated.

In one of the operation’s largest plant-based seizures, the UK’s Border Force in Felixstowe seized from a maritime container 1.3 million tablets containing CITES-listed Saussurea Costus plant.

Spain’s Guardia Civil seized over 250 CITES-protected items, including turtles, parrots, ivory-based merchandise and timber.

Authorities in the Netherlands intercepted 145 snakes and other reptiles in luggage at Schiphol International Airport, as well as 454 live birds, mostly African songbirds.

“The volume of seizures made during Operation Thunder 2021 proves how serious the transnational organized crime threat is for wild species and ecosystems across the range, transit and destination countries,” said CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero.

“The success of Operation Thunder 2021 strongly contributes to the strategic vision of CITES Parties, and reinforces that we must work together, combining different skills, mandates and resources to reduce threats to wildlife and live in harmony with nature,” added Ms. Higuero.

1.4 million plant-derived items such as dietary supplements, were seized during the Operation. Courtesy of New Zealand Customs

The WCO identified that the trends in the crime include an increase in illegal money transfers to launder the proceeds of wildlife and timber crime, use of online platforms to facilitate cross-border trafficking, more commercial and Customs document fraud for export, transit, and import, links with other serious crime, as seen by Namibia which reported 14 wildlife crime cases linked to the illegal trade in pharmaceutical products, food and vehicle parts.

Suggesting some of the emerging trafficking routes, the WCO stressed that Nicaraguan authorities seized 657 m3 of rosewood bound for China, and Hong Kong (China) authorities seized 3.2 tonnes of red sandalwood in freight from the United Arab Emirates.

Demonstrating the link between wildlife and drug crime, Operation Thunder 2021 saw Mexican authorities arrest three Chinese nationals smuggling totoaba bladders, sea cucumber and coral along with methamphetamine and cash.

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