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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Global Community Unites to Combat Wildlife Crime

   2 people check luggage on a conveyor belt  in an airportService wildlife inspectors examine passenger baggage with CBP officers at Los Angeles International Airport.

In May 2018, the Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) participated in a worldwide anti-wildlife trafficking effort codenamed, Operation Thunderstorm.  “Thunderstorm” follows the success of 2017’s Operation Thunderbird and is the second operation in the “Thunder” series.

These operations were organized through the auspice of the International Consortium to Combat Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) and facilitated by the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group (WCWG), the World Customs Organization, and the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Secretariat. 

Operation Thunderstorm had three main objectives: to interdict wildlife smuggling on every continent; dismantle transnational organized criminal syndicates; and increase international collaboration and information sharing. 

Protecting our Borders and Native Resources

USFWS wildlife inspectors work alongside of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers every day to protect our nation’s borders at major ports of entry.  Wildlife inspectors protect native wildlife in the trade from exploitation and are the nation’s first line of defense to prevent the spread of disease and the introduction of invasive and injurious species, which can have devastating impacts on native wildlife and U.S. agriculture.

   3 photos: From left: A dog and handler inspect a small plane on the tarmac; snails with evidence tags; scorpions in a dishFrom left: A  Service  K-9 team inspects a plane for injurious species in Alaska, giant Africa land snails, and dictator scorpions interdicted at the Port of New York.

During Operation Thunderstorm, USFWS and CBP performed border inspections at the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona and at the U.S.-Canada border (Alcan) in Alaska.  During the Alcan blitz, wildlife violations were discovered in 16% of the total number of vehicles that contained wildlife.  At the Port of New York, wildlife inspectors interdicted smuggled, live, venomous scorpions and injurious giant African land snails before entering the U.S. where they could have endangered humans and adversely affected our country’s agriculture, and therefore, its economy.  Across the U.S., thousands of reptile skins, live protected turtles, American ginseng, and nearly 1,800 sea turtle shells were stopped by law enforcement before being unlawfully exported.

Combatting Transnational Organized Crime                       

Hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered and illegal in the international trade; therefore, sea turtle products are highly valuable on the black market.  They are native to the U.S, but also have habitats around the world.  Globally, countries share a joint responsibility to ensure their survival.  One seizure was particularly significant.  Nearly 1,800 partial sea turtle carapaces falsely manifested as “plastic recycle” were interdicted.  Several of the turtle shell scutes had bullet holes through them, a stark reminder of the continued poaching of these endangered animals.  CBP seized the shipment and referred the case to the USFWS.  This seizure exemplifies U.S. law enforcement supporting each other and highlights that the U.S. is a transit point as well as a consumer in the illegal wildlife trade.  From this interdiction, USFWS launched a broader investigation in collaboration with foreign partners. 

   Seized hawksbill sea turtle shells cover the floor in rowsCritically endangered hawksbill sea turtle shells were seized.  Many of the shells had bullet holes.

International Collaboration and Solutions

USFWS special agent attachés perform critical roles in such international investigations.     

They are experienced criminal investigators with a specialty in wildlife and natural resource investigations.  Seven attaches are stationed at the following U.S. embassies and are responsible for large regional areas: Bangkok, Thailand (Southeast Asia Region); Beijing, China (Asia Region); Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (Eastern Africa Region); Gaborone, Botswana (Southern Africa Region); Libreville, Gabon (West/Central Africa Region); Lima, Peru (South America Region); and Mexico City, Mexico (Mexico, Caribbean, Central America Region).  Their mission is primarily to support wildlife investigations within the host country and region, provide training and capacity building, and advise on the leverage of U.S. assets in the host region to combat wildlife trafficking.  Attachés play a critical role to connect enforcement authorities and foster transnational investigations. 

At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, a passenger from Guyana was caught smuggling live songbirds, which were discovered hidden inside of hair curlers and placed in personal baggage.  In addition to conservation concerns, live birds also pose a disease risk to our native birds and possibly to the U.S. poultry market.  The USFWS South America attaché is working with Guyana officials to create new protocols that will allow the immediate repatriation of the wildlife and deportation of the smuggler for prosecution within Guyana.  Immediate removal of the wildlife will support the species survival and prevent avian viruses from entering our country.

   hand holds hair curlers finches were smuggled in Live finches were smuggled into JFK to be used as songbirds.  They were discovered passenger baggage and hidden inside hair curlers.

Why this Work is Important

Wildlife and plants are valuable commodities.  In addition to interdicting illegal wildlife, the USFWS also facilitates the legal wildlife trade that is worth over $4 billion annually to the U.S. economy.  Global operations like Thunderstorm are important because strong, effective, and collaborative wildlife law enforcement is a major deterrent to wildlife poaching and smuggling.

The illegal trade decimates wildlife and plants; reduces the legal trade, makes it increasingly difficult to monitor the sustainability of wild species, propels extinction, robs local communities in developing countries from creating businesses based on their local resources, promotes transnational organized crime, and has been tied to drug and weapon trafficking.

During Operation Thunderstorm, law enforcement officers from 92 participating countries shared intelligence and data to the INTERPOL WCWG.  Weekly, officers discussed recent smuggling activities and initiated multi-national investigations. 

The number of participating countries more than doubled from last year and worldwide reporting is remarkable.  INTERPOL reported:  

  • 647,000 tons of wood and timber.
  • More than 40 tons of raw and processed ivory.
  • More than 25 tons of wild meat (including bear, elephant, crocodile, whale and zebra).
  • 27,000 reptiles (including 869 alligators/crocodiles, 9,590 turtles and 10,000 snakes).
  • Almost 4,000 birds, including pelicans, ostriches, parrots and owls.
  • 64 wild cat bodies and parts (including jaguar, leopard, lion, tiger and small wild cats).
  • 48 live monkeys.
  • The carcasses of seven bears, including two polar bears.

The U.S. reported equally impressive results.  During this one-month period, the OLE cleared 14,560 wildlife shipments that were valued at $351 million in legal trade.  In addition, OLE conducted 7,025 inspections and interdicted 276 illegal wildlife shipments.  The following is just a sample of the protected wildlife that was stopped at U.S. ports during the course of the operation:

  • 3,800 crocodilian skins including alligator, crocodile, and caiman species;
  • 1,030 live reptiles such as snakes, turtles, tortoises, lizards, and geckos;
  • 3,014 traditional medicines that contained tiger, bear, macaque, python, and tortoise;
  • 1,796 sea turtle carapaces (partial shell scutes); and
  • 400 marine mammal parts from walrus, whales, and seals.

   white bottle with red top  and orange seal“Traditional medicines” often contain products from endangered species.  The “medicine” above contains tiger bone.

The ICCWC requested the U.S. to participate in this international exercise.  The USFWS is the only U.S. agency that regularly inspects the import or export of wildlife and wildlife products for conservation and trade purposes. 

This action supports President Trump’s Executive Order 13773, “Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking,” which directs agencies to strengthen enforcement of federal law in order to thwart transnational criminal organizations and subsidiary organizations engaged in illicit activities, including wildlife trafficking.

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