PARIS (AP) — Nearly 100 countries took part in a globe-spanning crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade, seizing tons of meat, ivory, pangolin scales and timber in a monthlong bust that exposed the international reach of traffickers, Interpol said Wednesday.
Officials also confiscated thousands of live animals, including 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, which followed similar stings in past years, yielded seizures worth millions of dollars during May, according to Interpol.
“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 after the illegal drug trade, 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.
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 in the Thunderstorm sting, which included police, customs and other agencies from 92 countries, 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.
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.”
Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia in Johannesburg contributed.