News & Highlights
30 November 2021

Global arrests and seizures: WCO-INTERPOL Operation Thunder 2021 strikes wildlife and timber trafficking networks

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Global arrests and seizures: WCO-INTERPOL Operation Thunder 2021 strikes wildlife and timber trafficking networks


30 November 2021 - A worldwide enforcement operation against wildlife and timber crime coordinated by the World Customs Organization (WCO) and INTERPOL has disrupted crime networks and seen hundreds of arrests worldwide.

Codenamed Thunder 2021, the month-long (1-31 October) operation involved Customs, Police, financial intelligence units and wildlife and forestry enforcement agencies in 118 countries, the largest number of participating countries since the inception of the “Thunder” operation series in 2017.

Thousands of cars, trucks, boats and cargo transporters suspected of transporting protected wildlife and timber were searched, often with specialist sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners.

Searches targeted illegally traded CITES-listed specimens, ranging from timber to live big cats, primates, reptiles, and birds, as well as derivative products such as clothing, beauty products, food items, traditional medicines and handicrafts.

CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement to ensure that trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Trade performed in breach of CITES is illegal.

Although results are still being reported, Operation Thunder 2021 has so far seen more than 1,000 seizures and the identification of some 300 suspects, triggering a series of worldwide arrests and investigations linked to illegal trading, processing, exporting and importing CITES-listed wildlife and forestry products.

Further arrests and prosecutions are foreseen globally as investigations continue to unfold.

Total worldwide seizures reported to date include: 

  • 478 kg of ivory and 487 kg of ivory-derived products
  • 75 big cat parts, 29 live big cats
  • 856 kg pangolin scales
  • 531 turtles and tortoises
  • 171 birds
  • 336 reptiles
  • 4,843 kg marine products, including corals
  • 75,320 kg of timber, including 313m3 of rosewood
  • 1.4 million plant-derived items

On the Mozambican border, South African authorities seized 460 kg of abalone bound for China. Abalone mollusks are at critically low levels because of over-exploitation.

Myanmar authorities made 13 seizures nationwide totaling 68 tonnes of restricted and endangered hardwood species. 

Polish authorities intercepted 29 illegal caviar shipments. International trade in all species of sturgeons is CITES-regulated. 

In one of the operation’s largest plant-based seizures, the UK’s Border Force in Felixstowe seized from a maritime container 1.3 million tablets containing CITES-listed Saussurea Costus plant.

Spain’s Guardia Civil seized over 250 CITES-protected items, including turtles, parrots, ivory-based merchandise and timber. 

Authorities in the Netherlands intercepted 145 snakes and other reptiles in luggage at Schiphol International Airport, as well as 454 live birds, mostly African songbirds.

“With criminals trafficking endangered species along the same routes they use to smuggle other illicit goods, Customs is strategically placed at borders to intercept illegally traded CITES-listed products,” said WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya

“Large scale cross-border operations such as Operation Thunder 2021 illustrate the benefits and impact global law enforcement cooperation has in deterring wildlife crime, putting its perpetrators behind bars, and raising awareness on its devastating effects,” added Dr Mikuriya.

“Organized crime networks are generating billions in illicit profits every year, at significant cost to our environment as well as the associated impacts of fraud, corruption and violence,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

“We are seeing the continued globalization of crime, which means only an international response can be effective, as demonstrated with this latest Operation Thunder. Every one of our 195 member countries has a role to play in combating this threat, either directly or in the follow-up investigations,” added Secretary General Stock.

Trends identified so far include:

  • increase in illegal money transfers to launder the proceeds of wildlife and timber crime,
  • use of online platforms to facilitate cross-border trafficking,
  • more commercial and Customs document fraud for export, transit, and import,
  • links with other serious crime, as seen by Namibia which reported 14 wildlife crime cases linked to the illegal trade in pharmaceutical products, food and vehicle parts.

Suggesting some of the emerging trafficking routes, Nicaraguan authorities seized 657 m3 of rosewood bound for China, and Hong Kong (China) authorities seized 3.2 tonnes of red sandalwood in freight from the United Arab Emirates.

Demonstrating the link between wildlife and drug crime, Operation Thunder 2021 saw Mexican authorities arrest three Chinese nationals smuggling totoaba bladders, sea cucumber and coral along with methamphetamine and cash.

“The volume of seizures made during Operation Thunder 2021 proves how serious the transnational organized crime threat is for wild species and ecosystems across range, transit and destination countries,” said CITES Secretary General Ivonne Higuero.

“The success of Operation Thunder 2021 strongly contributes to the strategic vision of CITES Parties, and reinforces that we must work together, combining different skills, mandates and resources to reduce threats to wildlife and live in harmony with nature,” added Ms. Higuero.

Intelligence-led field operations

Customs and Police shared information and intelligence concerning wildlife and timber trafficking ahead of and during the Operation, enabling field officers to target specific trafficking hotspots during the tactical phase, with an emphasis on land, sea and airport border points as well as wildlife parks. Constant efforts are made to improve risk management through the continuous collection of data.

Known criminals, particularly INTERPOL red notice fugitives, were identified ahead of operations, along with companies used to facilitate wildlife and timber crime.

Since the first edition in 2017, “Thunder” operations have seen some 8,000 seizures of protected wildlife and forestry species and the arrest of more than 3,000 offenders. Customs and Police contribute to conservation efforts by gathering and delivering admissible evidence that supports investigations and prosecutions. More and more countries are establishing wildlife crime specialized units to tackle this rampant criminality.

Operation Thunder 2021 is the fifth operation of its kind, initiated by the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group. Coordinated jointly by the WCO and INTERPOL, with the backing of the CITES Secretariat and the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), these operational efforts are funded by the European Commission’s department for International Partnerships (INTPA), the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

See also:

About ICCWC:

The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) is a unique partnership of five intergovernmental organizations to help law enforcement bring criminals engaged in wildlife crime to justice.

Through technical assistance, tools, training, and operational support, ICCWC works along the entire criminal justice chain, building the capacity of frontline law enforcement in countries and regions around the world affected by wildlife crime.

The ICCWC partners are the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank Group (WBG) and the World Customs Organization (WCO).

The work delivered by Consortium through the ICCWC Strategic Programme 2016-2020 has been made possible by the generous financial support of the European Union, France, Germany, the Principality of Monaco, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America.  

Find out more about ICCWC and its tools and services on this link.

About CITES:

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed on 3 March 1973 and entered into force on 1 July 1975. With 183 Parties (182 countries + the European Union), it remains one of the world's most powerful tools for wildlife conservation through the regulation of international trade in over 38,000 species of wild animals and plants. CITES-listed species are used by people around the world in their daily lives for food, health care, furniture, housing, tourist souvenirs, cosmetics or fashion. CITES seeks to ensure that international trade in such species is sustainable, legal and traceable and contributes to both the livelihoods of the communities that live closest to them and to national economies for a healthy planet and the prosperity of the people in support of UN Sustainable Development Goals.