More than 10,000 wild animals and their parts were seized in Operation Thunderball, a massive anti-smuggling campaign coordinated by two of the world’s largest enforcement agencies.
The operation, conducted by Interpol and the World Customs Organization over 26 days in June, spanned 109 countries and was the “most widespread wildlife crime raid” ever organized, National Geographic reported.
Interpol said on Wednesday that more than 1,800 seizures and two dozen arrests were made during the operation. More than 600 suspects were identified, the organization said, and “further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated.”
Interpol and the World Customs Organization worked closely with local police, as well as customs and environmental officers, to conduct the raids. Among the animals recovered were 23 live primates, including an infant langur smuggled from Bangladesh that was discovered by Indian environmental police, and 30 big cats, including a white tiger cub found in a van in Mexico.
More than 10,000 turtles and tortoises, some 4,300 birds and thousands of wildlife parts, including elephant tusks, rhino horns and pangolin, were also seized.
The pangolin has earned the ignominious title of world’s most trafficked mammal because of a baseless belief in the medicinal powers of its scales. This myth has fueled widespread poaching and smuggling of the scaly, anteater-like creature.
According to Interpol, Nigerian officials intercepted about a half-ton of pangolin scales that had been en route to Asia. Two dead pangolins smuggled from Cameroon were also found in Montreal, The Canadian Press reported, noting that it was the first time Canadian authorities had ever made a seizure of the rare creature.
Conservation groups lauded the operation’s success.
Speaking to The New York Times, Ginette Hemley of the World Wildlife Fund called the anti-trafficking effort “breathtaking” in its reach and said it “underscores why international cooperation is so important to addressing this deadly criminal activity.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society said in a statement that “this massive disruption of criminal networks is key to saving endangered wildlife across the globe.”
The group added, however, that “seizures and arrests are only the first step” to tackling the enormous problem of wildlife crime ― which has been on the rise in recent years.
“Governments now must follow up with strong, meaningful prosecutions. In particular, the criminals running these networks must feel the full weight of the law, including deterrent penalties and jail sentences,” the conservation society said.
Operation Thunderball is the third in a series of large-scale campaigns aimed at illegal wildlife trafficking that have been spearheaded by Interpol and the World Customs Organization. The organizations teamed up for Operation Thunderbird in 2017 and Operation Thunderstorm in 2018.
Interpol said this week it was looking ahead to more enforcement efforts.
“It is not something that we aim at doing only for once and for the sake of having a nice press release,” Henri Fournel, Interpol’s coordinator of environmental security, told National Geographic. “This is, for us, the foundation of a new era where customs and police will work hand-in-hand against wildlife and timber traffickers.”
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