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2,114 illegal items seized during huge border sting

Criminal networks were disrupted during an international operation involving 133 countries.

Thousands of wild animals and plants have been seized in an operation targeting international traffickers.

Over 25 days, more than 500 arrests were made as part of Operation Thunder, a joint project between INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization (WCO).

Images released by customs agencies from Thailand, India, Brazil, Botswana, the Czech Republic and Indonesia highlight the elaborate mechanisms smugglers use to hide wildlife in suitcases and boxes.

Tortoises wrapped in socks with smiling faces on them. A red circle around an exposed one.
Tortoises were among the animals seized during Operation Thunder. Source: Thai Customs

Australia’s Department of Agriculture (DAFF) confirmed it was among the 133 countries that contributed to the operation. However how it specifically helped remains a mystery, because the department said it was unable to provide details at this time.

“(DAFF) has a regulatory responsibility at the Australian border to monitor and respond to matters of biosecurity and in that capacity took part in 2023 Operation Thunder… As these relate to an ongoing investigation, the department is unable to comment further,” it said.

Illegal wildlife seizures by the numbers

Operation Thunder occurred in October this year, and included the sharing of intelligence and the arrest of traffickers operating online trying to smuggle illegal timber across borders.

INTERPOL reported hundreds of cars, trucks, and cargo ships were searched and X-ray scanners and sniffer dogs were used to detect illegal items being sent through airports.

Much of the wildlife is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) because they are threatened with extinction.

A chart shows Operation Thunder results by the numbers.
Operation Thunder resulted in the seizure of 2,114 items. Source: ICCWC, WCO, INTERPOL

“Wildlife and forestry crimes deprive countries of their natural assets and are invariably linked to armed violence, corruption, and a wide range of financial crimes which serve as the backbone of larger transnational crime operations worldwide,” INTERPOL Secretary General Jurgen Stock said.

In total 2,114 seizures were made, including 313kg of elephant ivory, 8kg of rhino horn, 53 live primates, and 556 tonnes of timber.

Elephant tusks can be seen inside a suitcase using an airport X-ray scanner.
Elephant tusks can be seen using an airport X-ray scanner. Source: Indonesia Customs
A pangolin curled inside a bag.
15 live pangolins were seized during the operation. Source: Botswana Customs

WCO Secretary General Dr Kunio Mikuriya said the operation played a “pivotal role” in “disrupting criminal networks”.

“At the forefront of this strategy, customs employ intelligence-sharing, collaboration, and technological advancements. These measures are crucial to stay one step ahead of criminals, thereby ensuring that customs' contribution to combating wildlife crime is dynamic and adaptive,” Mikuriya added.

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