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Giraffe Bones, Whale Meat And Monkey Skull Seized During Operation Thunder

Giraffe bones, canned whale meat and a monkey skull were among items seized by the Department of Conservation (DOC) during an international crackdown on wildlife crime.

Operation Thunder 2020 involved 103 countries in a coordinated push against the illegal trade of wildlife. The operation ran from 14 September to 11 October and was organised by Interpol and the World Customs Organisation.

Participating countries focused on the trade of vulnerable species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement aimed at ensuring the international trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild.

Operation Thunder 2020 resulted in global seizures of more than 45,000 live animals and plants. A total of 699 offenders were apprehended with further arrests and prosecutions anticipated.

In New Zealand, DOC focused operational efforts on items coming through mail, freight and cargo. DOC reported 53 seizures of illegally traded wildlife during the operation. Items also included whale teeth, a crocodile skin knife sheath, dried shark meat and some traditional Chinese medicine products.

Seven infringement notices have been issued for fines between $600 and $800. DOC is also pursuing prosecution against a small number of illegal importers of wildlife products.

DOC Principal Compliance Officer Dylan Swain, also Chairman of the Interpol Wildlife Crime Working Group, says DOC works closely with other agencies overseas to identify and take action against importers and exporters of illegal wildlife products.

“Wildlife crime is the fourth largest illegal trade in the world, and by participating in operations such as this we can help protect not only our own species, but also those animals and plants endangered by illegal trade internationally,” he says.

DOC Endangered Species Officer Jan McKeown coordinated New Zealand’s involvement in the operation.

“Even with the New Zealand border restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still experiencing a continuous illegal influx of unpermitted protected wildlife,” she says.

“The ability to purchase internationally online is not a guarantee your purchase can be legally imported into New Zealand – please do your background research before pushing the ‘buy now’ button.”

Other international seizures include 187 raw elephant tusks in Cameroon; an adult female white tiger, a jaguar and a four-month-old lion cub rescued from smugglers in Mexico; and an 18-tonne shipment of red sandalwood seized in India.

Anyone uncertain about items they can or cannot import can check on the DOC’s CITES webpage.

To report any suspected illegal activity relating to wildlife, ring the DOC emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).


Background information

  • CITES is an international agreement that regulates trade in animal and plant species to ensure it does not threaten their long-term survival in the wild. Over 34,000 species are covered by CITES, which monitors and regulates trade in endangered species through a system of permits and certificates. These documents are needed to cross borders with any CITES species or any product containing CITES species.
  • DOC’s National Compliance Team and network of Warranted Officers investigate alleged instances of illegal wildlife export, import and sale.
  • In New Zealand, DOC was assisted in the operation by New Zealand Customs Service and the Ministry for Primary Industries, who are responsible for border controls.

Interpol media release: Wildlife and forestry crime: Worldwide seizures in global INTERPOL-WCO operation

  • A month-long police and customs cross-border operation (14 September - 11 October 2020) resulted in large seizures of protected wildlife and forestry specimens and products, triggering arrests and investigations worldwide.
  • “The results of Operation Thunder 2020 show that the vital work of Parties to respond to wildlife crime collectively continues unabated despite the challenging global context,” said Ivonne Higuero, CITES Secretary General.

“Strong, coordinated responses at all levels are needed to address the activities of transnational organized crime groups involved in wildlife crime.”

  • Operation Thunder 2020 is the fourth in a series of ‘Thunder’ operations carried out annually since 2017, which have resulted in significant seizures and the arrest of thousands of suspects engaged in the illegal trade of wildlife and timber species. Such coordinated global operations give impetus to a positive feedback loop. Customs can continuously update and refine their risk indicators for improved profiling while police can both investigate new leads that have been generated and build on cooperation with other agencies.

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