Asia, Africa and North America join hands to crack down on Wildlife Crime Syndicates

February 18, 2013 - Police, Customs and wildlife officers from Asia, Africa and the United States announced today that a cross border enforcement operation codenamed “COBRA” was successfully carried out. The month-long effort was described as “An international, intelligence-driven operation aimed at dismantling organized wildlife crime syndicates with significant results and the prospect for more.” The operation was a welcome and innovative initiative from countries, the first international effort of its kind to focus on the sharing of investigation information in real time among countries and a concerted response by law enforcement agencies of implicated countries and partnering institutions towards curtailing rampant wildlife crime. It facilitated increased cooperation among range, transit and consumer countries where significant seizures of contraband wildlife specimens and arrests of suspects involved were recorded. The use of specialized investigation techniques was promoted and a number of follow up investigations into the seizures were initiated.

Between 6 January and 5 February 2013, representatives from the Office of China National Interagency CITES Enforcement Coordination Group (NICECG), Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF) , Nepalese Police (Representing SA-WEN), South African Police Service, India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), Indonesian Police, Vietnamese Environmental Police, Royal Thai Police, Association of Southeast Asia Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Regional Intelligence Liaison Office for Customs in the Asia/Pacific region (RILO A/P) worked jointly and coordinated the operation as an International Coordination Team (ICT) based in Bangkok. Real time sharing of information amongst the agencies and across borders characterized the ITC, regional and national coordinators.

The ICT, chaired by China, constantly maintained contact with operation teams at regional and national levels. The operation yielded hundreds of arrests which included seizures of assorted wildlife specimens; mainly 42,000kg of red sander wood, 6,500kg of elephant ivory, 1,550kg of shatoosh (around 10,000 Tibetean antelopes must have been killed to collect such an amount of this wool), 2,600 live snakes, 324 hornbills, 102 pangolins, 800kgs of pangolin scales, 22 rhino horns and 4 rhino horn carvings, 10 tiger and 7 leopard trophies, 31kg elephant meat as well as claws and teeth of protected felid animals and plant species. Assorted equipment including fire arms and ammunitions were also recovered from poachers during the operation.

“Operation COBRA focused on quality of investigations over quantity of seizures. The team gathered vital intelligence from this operation, which will be very useful in the ongoing joint investigations,” stated Wan Ziming from China. Senior Superintendent, Uttam Kumar Karkee, from Nepalese Police pointed out the necessity of joint efforts from the international community to fight effectively against wildlife crime and added, “Operation COBRA has proven itself to be an excellent model for fighting trans-national crime “. Adan Alio from LATF said that, “Our international team decided to focus on tracking and dismantling criminal networks. Until the top criminals are brought down, the poaching and illegal trade will continue.”

Deputy Chief Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement commented, “This operation sends a powerful message to poachers and smugglers across the globe. The world’s endangered wildlife and plant resources are not theirs for the taking. Congratulations to every officer, country and organization contributing to this operation and the related investigations. Only as global partners can we protect the world’s wildlife”.

John E. Scanlon, Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), stated that, ‘this is an important operation that has brought together a wide-range of law enforcement authorities from across their range, transit and consumer countries. Authorities demonstrated a strong commitment and willingness to use specialized investigative techniques which are essential to combating transnational organized wildlife crime. The Operation merits the CITES Secretary-General’s Certificate of Commendation’.

The Lusaka Agreement Secretariat has acknowledged the efforts by Asian and African participating countries and their regional institutions that will go along side enhancing good understanding of the need for both continents to work together in addressing common wildlife conservation challenges.

The operation was proposed by Office of NICECG and ASEAN-WEN in 2012 under the Special Investigation Group, organized by China, the USA, South Africa, ASEAN-WEN, SAWEN and LATF, assisted by the World Customs Organization (WCO), the CITES Secretariat, and International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). The operation targeted species under serious threats such as big cats, elephants, rhinos, pangolins and great apes. Many countries participated including: Botswana, Cambodia, Cameroon, China, Congo (Brazzaville), Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Mozambique, Nepal, Singapore, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, USA, Vietnam and Zambia. Freeland Foundation provided Operation COBRA with information on wildlife crime that was collected over several years.

Operation COBRA was financially supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s African Elephant Conservation Fund, Royal Thai Police, China Wildlife Conservation Association and the Freeland with in-kind contributions by participating countries.

Note to Editor:

The Special Investigation Group (SIG) came into force during the 3rd Annual Meeting of ASEAN-WEN, Special Investigation Group sub-meeting facilitated by INTERPOL and supported by the ASEAN-WEN Support Program (now ARREST Program implemented by Freeland), 27 May 2008, Vientiane, Lao PDR. A consensus was reached during this meeting that each country needs to assign officers to collect information on illegal pangolin trafficking and reconvene a meeting to conduct cross border investigations targeting the illegal traders. Since this first meeting the Special Investigation Group has continued to reconvene operational meetings mainly at the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) to exchange information with expanded mandate to include, Asian big cats, ivory and rhino horn. The Special Investigation Group has also expanded membership from ASEAN, South Asia, China and the US to now also include African law enforcement agencies and enforcement networks. Operation COBRA was conceived as a direct follow-up operation of a global SIG training at the ILEA in Sept 2012 in Bangkok, Thailand. Over 30 law enforcement officers from Asia, Africa and the United States participated in the SIG to conduct joint training and operational planning aimed at dismantling criminal syndicates responsible for the ongoing slaughter of elephants, rhinos, tigers and other endangered species. The Sept 2012, SIG training event was organized by Freeland and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, with technical assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development through its “Asia’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking” (ARREST) Program.