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Thousands Of Live Animals, Meat, Ivory, Seized In Illegal Trade: Interpol

The live animals recovered in the stings included turtles in Malaysia and parrots in Mexico

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In this photo taken in May 2018 in Ecuador and provided by Interpol on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, Ecuadorian police officers inspect a bird of prey.
In this photo taken in May 2018 in Ecuador and provided by Interpol on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, Ecuadorian police officers inspect a bird of prey. VOA
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Thousands of live animals along with tons of meat, ivory, pangolin scales and timber were seized in a monthlong global crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade that Interpol said exposed the international reach of traffickers.

The live animals recovered in the stings included turtles in Malaysia and parrots in Mexico. Canada intercepted 18 tons of eel meat arriving from Asia. Those arrested included two flight attendants in Los Angeles and a man in Israel whose house was raided after he posted a hunting photograph on social media.

Operation Thunderstorm, involving 92 countries, yielded seizures worth millions of dollars during May, Interpol said Wednesday.

“The results are spectacular,” said Sheldon Jordan, Canada’s director general of wildlife enforcement.

Acknowledging the magnitude of the problem, Jordan said global wildlife crime is worth about $150 billion annually and is fourth in value among illegal global trades behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking.

Criminal syndicates that smuggle flora and fauna often take advantage of porous borders and corrupt officials, transporting illicit cargo at an industrial scale.

The Thunderstorm swoop included the confiscation of 8 tons of pangolin scales, half of which was found by Vietnamese authorities on a ship from Africa.

Africa’s four species of pangolins are under increasing pressure from poachers because of the decimation of the four species in Asia, where pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine.

Animals
Animals, Pixabay

A total of 43 tons of contraband meat – including bear, elephant, crocodile, whale and zebra – 1.3 tons of elephant ivory, 27,000 reptiles, about 4,000 birds, 48 live primates, 14 big cats and two polar bear carcasses were also seized. Several tons of wood and timber were also seized.

China, the world’s largest ivory consumer, banned its domestic trade starting this year in what conservationists hope will relieve pressure on Africa’s besieged elephant populations. While some herds are recovering, a high rate of killing continues in many areas, such as Mozambique’s Niassa reserve.

Some 1,400 suspects were identified worldwide, Interpol said. Two flight attendants were arrested in Los Angeles carrying live spotted turtles to Asia in personal baggage, said Interpol. Both suspects have been charged with smuggling protected species.

Participating nations were from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North and South America. The Pacific nation of Vanuatu, which is not an Interpol member, took part.

Officers searched cars, trucks, boats and containers, sometimes using sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners.

Also read: Thanks To Human Activities, For Making Animals Night Owls

The operation, Interpol Secretary General Juergen Stock said, showed that wildlife traffickers use the same routes as other criminals, “often hand-in-hand with tax evasion, corruption, money laundering and violent crime.” (VOA)

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Genetic Analysis Identifies Illegal Ivory Traders

Few countries are complying with a directive to send samples from ivory busts for DNA analysis.

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A Thai forensic expert collects a DNA sample from a confiscated elephant tusk, coming from Malawi, at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok. VOA

Researchers are using genetic analysis to connect the dots in the illegal ivory trade, linking multiple seizures of the valuable tusks to a common set of traffickers.

Targeting these ivory-smuggling cartels could have a major impact on the elephant poaching that is driving the animals to extinction, according to the authors of a new study.

The findings mean some suspects already facing charges from single arrests could face additional charges and stiffer penalties if convicted.

Ivory trafficking is a multibillion dollar transnational criminal enterprise with links to other illegal activities, including drug trafficking. Poaching claims an estimated 40,000 elephants each year.

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Pallet of seized raw ivory in US Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Missing tusks

University of Washington biologist Samuel Wasser and colleagues have been analyzing tusks seized in ivory busts to track where poached elephants came from. They previously identified hotspots in Tanzania and Mozambique from where nearly all the ivory seized between 2006 and 2014 came.

The new findings emerged from the case of the missing tusks.

Wasser and colleagues noticed that when ivory shipments were confiscated, they often only contained one of an elephant’s pair of tusks.

When they searched through genetic data taken from large-scale ivory busts between 2006 and 2015, they found 26 cases in which a tusk from one seizure matched one from a separate shipment.

In each case, the two shipments passed through the same port within a few months of each other. Wasser said that “suggest[s] that the same major trafficking cartel was actually responsible for shipping both.”

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Thai forensic experts collect DNA samples from a confiscated elephant tusk, coming from Malawi, at Suvarnabhumi International Airport. VOA

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, traces the ivory back to three major cartels based in Lome, Togo; Mombasa, Kenya; and Entebbe, Uganda.

When traffickers are caught, they typically only face charges for one shipment.

The methods Wasser’s group developed can link individual cartels to multiple shipments, and to each other.

For example, a key figure in the Uganda cartel currently is awaiting trial for one seizure. The new study links him to two others. One of those includes tusks from a 2012 incident in which poachers in a Ugandan helicopter shot 22 elephants across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“You can imagine, if this evidence is used, how much stronger a case we can build against him,” Wasser said.

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A ranger from the Kenya Wildlife Service stands guard near stacks of ivory in Nairobi National Park, Kenya, April 28, 2016. VOA

International links found

The new study also finds links between the Togo and Kenyan cartels. East African and West African tusks were found in a shipment seized in Malaysia. Ivory from this shipment matched tusks from separate seizures linked to Lome and Mombasa.

East African drug-smuggling suspects facing charges in the United States have been linked to the Kenyan ivory trafficking ring.

“The stories that emerge (from the research) are fascinating and important,” said CEO Frank Pope of the nonprofit Save the Elephants. “Wasser’s work is helping us to close in on those networks by telling the story of the connections between the different shipments.”

Wasser’s methods have already helped investigators disrupt international trafficking operations, according to Special Agent John Brown with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations.

Also Read: Thailand: Elephants Aid in Spreading Fruit Seeds

But Brown notes that few countries are complying with a directive to send samples from ivory busts for DNA analysis. That makes it harder for law enforcement to get to the root of the problem, he added.

“A seizure of three tons of ivory looks very good on the front page of the local newspaper,” Brown said. “But if we don’t attack the transnational criminal organizations behind it, then the problem will continue.” (VOA)