White River — More than 100 wild animals and plants were seized during a two-month operation aimed at combating cross-border trade in great apes and other wildlife.
Director of enforcement and facilitation at the World Customs Organization (WCO), Gaozhang Zhu, told journalists at a media briefing in White River, Mpumalanga, that the animals and plants were seized during a trans-regional operation between January and February.
“Being on the frontline at international border crossings enables customs to play a critical role in the fight against transnational organised crime, which is more often than not linked to the smuggling of endangered species,” said Zhu.
He said the international community and governments were growing concerned about increasing wildlife crime and associated corruption.
He said the main objective of the operation was to raise awareness, encourage effective enforcement and cooperation among identified international agencies and customs administrations in line with the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora.
The operation was conducted within the framework of Project Great Apes and Integrity (Gapin), a Swedish government-financed project designed to stem illegal trade while cracking down on corrupt practices that helped to fuel illicit trafficking.
WCO secretary general Kunio Mikuriya said Project Gapin resulted in the seizure of more than 22 tonnes and 13 000 pieces of protected wildlife covering over 31 species, including one live monkey, two dead monkeys (Macaques caught as bush meat), 295 pieces of ivory statues, jewellery and chopsticks, 57kg of raw ivory, four rhino horns, 4 726kg of pangolin meat, 323 seahorses and one leopard skin.
“(Improving) export controls on protected wildlife through capacity building and raising the awareness of front line customs officers on the dangers posed by corruption has ensured the success of this important trans-regional operation,” said Mikuriya.
He said the WCO and its 177 member customs administrations remained committed to protecting the earth’s natural heritage through effective border enforcement.
Fourteen African countries participated in the operation, supported by 25 countries in Asia and Europe, WCO Regional Intelligence Liaison Offices, Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network, Lusaka Agreement Task Force, Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, and national cities management authorities, wildlife enforcement agencies and in some countries, the police.
Mikuriya said detentions were also made in Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda and South Africa, four of the 15 countries that form part of Project Gapin.
The balance of arrests were made in countries outside Africa, such as Belgium, China, Czech Republic, France, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.
“Some of the countries participating in the training session made a number of significant interceptions during the actual operation and moreover, Vietnam Customs seized 1.2 tonnes of ivory shipped from Tanzania via Singapore just prior to the start of the operation,” Mikuriya said.
It is estimated that illegal trade in wildlife is, in term of profits, the second largest criminal activity next to narcotics smuggling.
“Almost all great ape populations continue to decline drastically, severely threatened by the combined effects of hunting and illegal export to third countries. The population of chimpanzees across Western Africa has decreased by 75 percent in the past 30 years,” Mikuriya said.