Operation Thunderball Saves More Trafficked Wildlife Than Any To Come Before
Operation Thunderball – no it isn’t a convoluted scheme by a villain in a James Bond film, but rather Interpol’s largest-ever coordinated seizure of wildlife traffickers and their ill-gotten specimens in history.
The massive operation involved 109 countries and resulted in nearly 2,000 seizures of protected wildlife, 440 ivory pieces, more than 4,300 birds, and nearly 10,000 live turtles and tortoises according to Interpol.
Trafficking of wildlife, both flora and fauna, is the third-largest criminal enterprise worldwide behind drugs and firearms. While one might imagine elephant ivory or exotic big cats as the most likely victims, all kinds of species are targeted, including many which aren’t endangered. Rare wildflower and tree specimens are also popular targets for trafficking.
Three Years Running
Wildlife crime has been on the rise as the global population increases. The practice of traditional Chinese medicine is an infamous destination for the illegal trade of shark fin, rhino horn, and the scales of a small mammal called the pangolin, the most trafficked animal on the planet.
Interpol and the World Customs Organization (WCO) have executed plans like this before; Operation Thunderbird in 2017, and Operation Thunderstorm in 2018. But it was Thunderball that led to the identification of nearly 600 individuals and arrests all over the globe.
Over the month of June, officials seized 23 live primates, 30 big cats, more than a ton of pangolin scales, 74 truckloads of timber, more than 2,600 plants, and nearly 10,000 marine species. By number of countries, this was the largest operation targeting wildlife crime in history.
On a positive note, the month’s seizures included only 5 rhino horns, an animal which has suffered severely from illegal wildlife trade and the poachers operating therein. Just last year, 50 rhino horns were intercepted in Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia. Worth a estimated market value of $12 million U.S. the rhino horns were likely bound for Vietnam or China, where people pay top dollar for them as a cancer treatment. It is estimated that 1,100 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone during 2016, to furnish horns for the wildlife trade.
However rhino horn is made from keratin, the same substance which makes up our hair and fingernails, and has never once been demonstrated to have any cancer-fighting effects.
Keeping Up the Pressure.
One of Operation Thunderball’s primary efforts was identifying routes and hotbeds of activity ahead of time.
“If we keep the pressure on and if we clamp down on specific routes and specific countries,” says Roux Raath, WCO’s environment program manager to National Geographic, “that forces criminals to either look at different commodities or either different countries, different routes….It’s changing the patterns”.
“As clearly illustrated by the results of Operation Thunderball, close cooperation at international and national levels to combat wildlife crime must never be underestimated,” said WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya.
“Such initiatives will be replicated to raise awareness within the global law enforcement community on the gravity of global wildlife crime and to better coordinate cross-agency efforts, including the engagement of civil society groups to detect and deter wildlife criminal networks,” added Mikuriya.
As species loss and habitat destruction continue to drive down biodiversity – a crucial component to the webs of organic life on earth, it’s bold action like Operation Thunderball that gives animals like the pangolin, and so many more besides, a fighting chance.