Global Crackdown: Operation Thunder 2022

Global Crackdown: Operation Thunder 2022

I’m continuing my international theme this month with a look at a multi-national, cooperative effort by INTERPOL and World Customs Organization (WCO) with the intent of disrupting the wildlife and timber crime trade.

In a December 7, 2022, article by industry Intelligence Inc. (http://www.industryintel.com), the APO Group on behalf of INTERPOL shared some interesting information about a one-month global crackdown on illegal wildlife and timber trade. INTERPOL and World Customs Organization (WCO) joined forces in October 2022 to enact hundreds of arrests. Their intent was to disrupt the wildlife and timber crime networks working globally.

The operation is codenamed “Thunder 2022.” It brought together police, customs, financial intelligence units, wildlife and forestry enforcement agencies from 125 countries. These types of world operations began in 2017, but this is by far the largest number of countries participating. 

Results are still being reported. The total impact may never be fully known as it is difficult if not impossible to ascertain the impact of these actions as a deterrent from future such illegal activities. As of December 2022, Operation Thunder has performed almost 2,200 seizures and the identification of 934 suspects. In addition, agents identified 141 companies suspected of engaging in illegal sales and worldwide seizures of protected animals and plants.

As always,
Results of Operation Thunder 2022

Searches were conducted focusing on illegally traded species protected by national legislation or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is an agreement between governments that regulates the international trade of wildlife and wildlife products. It includes everything from live animals and plants to food, leather goods, and trinkets. also known as the Washington Convention. The Checklist of CITES species allows the exploration of more than 36,000 species of animals and plants and their degree of protection.

The Thunder operation focused on utilizing preventive measures already in place. Through routine inspections and targeted controls, law enforcement officers inspected hundreds of parcels, suitcases, vehicles, boats and cargo transporters. Oftentimes, they used sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners to support their efforts. Searches were conducted at land and air border checkpoints.

So far, seizures of protected animals and plants include:

  • Wildlife: 119 big cats and other felines, 34 primates, 136 primate body parts, 25 rhino horns, 9 pangolins, 750 birds, 1,795 reptiles, 1, 190 turtles and tortoises, as well as tons of various animal and bird parts, such as elephant ivory.
  • Plants and timber: Timber seizures include Rosewood, Cacti, orchids, etc.

In Southern Africa, Namibian authorities intercepted large amounts of timber before they were smuggled into the region. Angola arrested a citizen of the Asian region attempting to return to the region with rhino horns and ivory ornaments. Malawi authorities seized elephant tusks at the home of a man with Asian citizenship.

In Asia, Thailand reported seizures of tortoises from East Africa and hundreds of live reptiles from Europe. Indonesia seized timber bound for the Middle East and Asia. India seized 1,200 reptiles (iguanas, pythons, monitor lizards, and tortoises) declared as “ornamental fish” and packed in cardboard boxes.

Europe has become a growing destination for protected wildlife. France intercepted reptiles from Central Africa hidden in luggage, Germany intercepted tiger skin amulets in a parcel from Asia and the UK seized several ivory pieces after investigating a man selling wildlife through an e-commerce site.

In the US, several international airports seized parrots, iguana eggs, coral, crocodile leather products, caviar and shark meat.

These are just a few of the reported items seized. It shows the robust and widespread nature of illegal international trade. With that understanding, it is easy to see the importance of having the type of global cooperation seen in Thunder 2022. Without that, any country’s individual efforts would be quickly thwarted. Large scale cross-border operations are the only weapon against transnational criminal networks. Customs administrations can refine their risk management strategies. Multi-stakeholder cooperation can tackle the full range of the trafficking cycle – from detection to seizure to arrest to prosecution. By sharing trafficking intelligence, both ahead and during operations, field officers can

More Than Just Conservation

Thunder operations are important to global security because timber and wildlife trafficking are not just conservation issues. For the communities and countries where illegal trafficking occurs, livelihoods are destroyed, diseases are spread, governments weakened, and entire economies destroyed. The lucrative financial gains that illegal trade offers, attracts serious organized crime and terrorist militants.

Operations like Thunder 2022 not only put criminals behind bars, but also protects the personal lives and global economic systems. In addition, it raises public awareness about what species or products people can or cannot buy, sell, or take from the wild.