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Major wildlife crime arrests

Tamsin WalkerJune 19, 2015

A global effort to tackle illegal wildlife trading has resulted in hundreds of arrests and the seizure of tons of plants and animals - dead and alive. Conservationists welcome the news as a step in the right direction.

Piles of tusks
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The list of wildlife contraband uncovered by Operation COBRA III - the name of the largest-ever coordinated international law enforcement effort to target the illegal trade in endangered species - makes for macabre reading.

It features 10,000 dead seahorses, and 400 living turtles and tortoises found in the UK; 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of live leeches in Bulgaria; 50 kilograms of animal parts (including heads and horns) in Spain; and more than 500 kilograms of frozen eels in Poland. And it doesn't stop there.

The operation, conducted in two phases between mid-March and the end of May this year, saw the participation of law enforcement teams and agencies from 62 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and America. It led to seizure of almost 249 kilograms of pangolin scales, 10 kilograms of hornbill beak and more than 12 tons of ivory.

Ivory shipping was officially outlawed in 1989 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but elephants are one of the major victims of the increasingly organized nature of the illegal wildlife trade.

Although conservationists have long been banging the drum for their protection, the slaughter continues apace. Just this month, the Tanzanian government published figures that showed its population - one of the largest in Africa - to have crashed from 109,051 to 43,300 between 2009 and 2014.

A dead elephant
Elephants are often killed with poison arrows, which mean they have to endure a slow and painful deathImage: AP Photo/Courtesy Karl Amman

As part of COBRA III, Thai police seized 511 pieces of ivory hidden in a container from Mombasa, marked as tea leaves. In May, the Kenyan port was flagged up by WildLeaks as a liability for the whole continent.

In a press release, the online whistleblower initiative dedicated to combating wildlife and forest crime said "the Port of Mombasa, one of the most important shipping facilities in Africa, has been a major ivory trafficking hub for several years, with over 43 tons of the illicit commodity seized at or originating from the port since 2009."

300 arrests - and room for more

The illegal wildlife trade ranks among the world's five most lucrative crime circles - but unlike drugs and arms, it receives relatively little attention from policymakers that have the power to help eradicate it. Against that background, the seizure of this haul has been hailed among the conservation community.

"Awareness is at long last steadily growing that wildlife trafficking is not an incidental, random or small scale activity, rather a form of organized criminality that has serious implications for wildlife conservation, animal welfare, national economies, security and governance," Gabriel Fava, program manager at the Born Free Foundation told DW.

That awareness has led to 300 arrests in Asia, Africa and Europe over the past three months. A statement issued by the cobra operation, which was organized by the Southeast Asian-based ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network, said those detained included smuggling kingpins from China, Vietnam and India.

A dead gorilla
Poachers take what they want, often for obscure medicinal purposesImage: Getty Images

Richard Thomas, spokesman for the wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC, said the operation left no doubt that the illegal trafficking of endangered species is a serious issue requiring international action. He stressed the need to carry through on what is a promising start for a new approach to tackling the crime.

"The bottom line is that wildlife crime remains as serious issue," he told DW. "It's all very well to arrest people, but there has to be a follow through on that. It is now vital to prosecute, and ensure that appropriate penalties are meted out."

Not just Asian, African problem

At things stand, those found guilty of wildlife crime are unlikely to receive more than a four-year jail sentence. This leniency is something conservationists want changed. Sarah Goddard, who is species policy officer at WWF in the United Kingdom, said strong enforcement is just part of the solution in changing the dynamics of what she calls a "low risk, high-profit crime."

"That's why WWF is calling for more consistent and commensurate sentences here in the UK for such wildlife criminals, to act as a deterrent to future crimes."

As the name suggests, COBRA III is the third such operation - but the first with European participation. The fact that many of the seizures took place on European Union soil underscores the global nature of a trade that is often perceived as an African and Asian problem.

Rows of bear paws
These bear paws were seized in ChinaImage: picture-alliance/ChinaFotoPress

Gabriel Fava says the outcome of the global operation "illustrates the scale and scope of the international trade in endangered species," but also provides insight into the potential for collaboration between countries taking the issue seriously. He said enforcement response efforts will have to be strategic, long-term and coordinated to work.

"Our fervent hope is that all concerned will be encouraged and stimulated by these results to truly implement their relevant national laws and international commitments."