On March 25, 2019, Indonesian authorities detained a Russian man accused of attempting to smuggle an orangutan out of the country. Andrei Zhestkov, the suspect, claimed that he purchased the animal from a market for $3,000, believing that he could bring it home as a pet. When Indonesian authorities discovered the orangutan inside one of Zhestkov’s suitcases at the international airport in Bali, they did not find an aggressive, terrified animal as they feared, but one sound asleep. Authorities uncovered allergy pills wrapped in plastic amongst Zhestkov’s belongings, which he had mixed with milk and fed to the animal, pacifying it for up to three hours. While he has not yet been charged, Zhestkov could face up to five years in prison, as well as fines of up to $7,000 for smuggling. Indonesian authorities have not charged Zhestkov because they are investigating if he is any way connected to wildlife trafficking syndicates.
The case of Zhestkov is by no means unique. The illegal trade in wildlife is one of the most lucrative trades in the world. According to Interpol, the trade is valued at $20 billion a year. As it is so expansive, criminals often conduct other illicit activities in tandem with those toward wildlife, including money laundering, corruption, and document fraud.
In 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Interpol released a joint report analyzing the rise of environmental crime, which assesses topics including the illegal wildlife trade. The report stresses that the illegal wildlife trade is so lucrative because it is so vast. It involves all types of animals, including insects, reptiles, and mammals, and, depending on the case, those animals may be dead or alive. Individuals may use animals for a variety of reasons, be it for ornamental, medicinal, or pharmaceutical purposes.
While elephant and rhino poaching may be one of the most well-known cases when it comes to wildlife crimes – as poachers relentlessly pursue their highly-valued horns – other cases are proving incredibly prevalent as well. The pangolin, a mammal found throughout Africa and Asia, has become one of the world’s most targeted animals in the illegal wildlife trade. All Pangolin species are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Nevertheless, from 2006 to 2016, well over one million Pangolins were killed or trafficked as a result of the trade. Pangolin populations in Asia have been hit hardest, as the demand for them is huge in China, where the scales are used for traditional medicinal purposes and the meat is viewed as a luxury item. Myanmar has proven one of the most frequently relied upon smuggling routes for Pangolin poachers, as its weak government, prime geographic location, and size make it highly appealing. Even though the Pangolin trade has proven this prevalent, authorities have worked to curb it, with Vietnamese officials seizing 4,000 kg worth of scales in 2015, and Myanmarese authorities making 52 seizures between 2010 and 2014.
In recent years, the international community has ramped up their efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Interpol has been leading the charge in this effort. In 2015, they launched Operation Paws II, in which they seized 13 tons of pangolin products, which represented about 1,000 animals and more than $2 million worth of product. States involved enhanced their communication and intelligence sharing techniques by deploying cyber investigations, DNA analysis, and joint enforcement activities of on-the-ground personnel. In 2018, Interpol commenced one of their largest operations yet – Operation Thunderstorm. The operation targeted both the individuals and organizations behind wildlife crime. 92 countries took part in the month-long operation, which resulted in nearly 2,000 seizures, as well as the identification of approximately 1,400 suspects, alongside arrests. Animal products seized included 43 tons of wild meat and 1.3 tons of elephant ivory. Live animals were discovered as well, with authorities, for example, rescuing 48 live primates. Interpol partnered with a variety of international organizations in this effort, including the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the International Consortium on Combatting Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). WCO Secretary General Kuino Mikuriya praised the operation’s outcome, stating,
“By leveraging the global network of worldwide environmental law enforcement experts and customs community’s commitment to protecting wildlife, WCO and its partners have clearly illustrated the power and effectiveness of international cooperation in keeping our natural heritage safe, both now and for future generations.”
While the recent case of Andrei Zhestkov has reminded the international community of just how prevalent the illicit wildlife trade is, actions like Operation Thunderstorm emphasize how seriously international authorities treat the subject. Since the trade remains one of the most lucrative in the world, international enforcement authorities must remain vigilant in their efforts to seize and prevent acts of wildlife smuggling by both individuals and organized syndicates.