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Tons of illegal ivory seized in international action against wildlife crime
Date Published: 30 Nov, 2009
Huge catch: KWS Deputy Director in charge of security Peter Leitoro (second right), Lusaka Agreement Task Force Director Bonaventure Ebayi (left), Interpol Regional Bureau Chief Awad Dahia and Kenya Police Director of Operations Julius Ndegwa (right) display wildlife trophies and firearms seized in 'Operation Costa'
Tons of illegal ivory have been seized and hundreds of people arrested in the largest to-date international operation targeting wildlife crime across Eastern Africa.
Kenya Wildlife Service, the Lusaka Agreement Task Force and Kenya Police played a critical role in the success of the INTERPOL co-ordinated operation against wildlife crime.
The simultaneous operation across six African countries led to the arrest of dozens of suspected illegal wildlife dealers, including 65 in Kenya together with the seizure of 567.8 kg of carved and raw items of ivory. This is in addition to the 532 kg earlier seized at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport during the initial phases of this operation --- bringing the total to 1086.6 kg of ivory.
As this operation is ongoing, detailed results from the other five countries are not yet reported.
Code-named Operation Costa, in honour of the late ‘Costa’ Mlay, a former Tanzanian wildlife director who set high standards of professionalism and integrity in wildlife conservation, it involved officers from police, national wildlife, customs and intelligence agencies across six countries - Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Kenya served as the coordination centre for the simultaneous operation.
The international sweep targeting local ivory markets, airports, border crossings and smuggling points also resulted in the seizure of firearms and ammunition, vehicles, cat skins and other contraband wildlife products.
Most of the suspects arrested in Kenya were caught outside national parks and reserves and included six foreign nationals, local brokers and poachers. Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Police are continuing investigations.
Conducted across Kenya, fifteen KWS field units in areas identified with illegal ivory trade and trafficking participated in the operation, supported by the Kenya Police, Lusaka Agreement Task Force and other security agencies.
The simultaneous operation, whose planning started in July 2009, was coordinated by INTERPOL and supported by the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group. It was initiated as a result of a request made to INTERPOL by African elephant range states to help the continent deal with illegal elephant killings. It was the second in an on-going series of multi-lateral co-operative operations against illegal ivory trade.
All the participating countries struck simultaneously at the illegal domestic markets in a coordinated manner to ensure that illegal ivory dealers who would try to cross borders were intercepted.
Kenya Police, Lusaka Agreement Task Force and other security agencies supported the operation, which was conducted across Kenya.
“The success of Operation Costa is notable not only for the sheer volume of illegal ivory which has been recovered, which is among the biggest ever hauls recorded, but because it also clearly shows the ability and will of law enforcement to effectively tackle wildlife crime,” said Peter Younger, manager of INTERPOL’s Operational Assistance, Services and Infrastructure Support (OASIS) Africa wildlife crime program.
“The illegal ivory trade is not just about smugglers and poachers; there are far-reaching consequences to this and all wildlife crime. Law enforcement officers have been killed, people are threatened with violence, and corruption and the wider economic impact on a country are all linked to this type of criminality.”
Supported by INTERPOL’s National Central Bureaus and Regional Bureaus, ‘Costa’ is the second in a series of such operations and will provide a strong information and intelligence-gathering basis for future actions.
“While taking these illegal items off the market is important, it is not the whole story,” said Mr Younger. “What Operation Costa will also enable law enforcement both in Africa and further afield, is identify the routes being used by smugglers, their connections and ultimately lead to the arrest of other individuals involved in these crimes.”
The Kenya Wildlife Service Director Julius Kipng’etich lauded the efforts of all the agencies involved in the operation and appealed to the public for support in the fight against wildlife crime.
“Partnership is a key element of KWS new strategic plan,” the Director said.
“The success of Operation Costa is a testament to the spirit of the new plan. The increasing sophistication of international wildlife crime requires an increasingly sophisticated law enforcement response. KWS is accordingly in the process of modernising and enhancing its law enforcement capacity,” said Mr Kipng’etich.
“We in KWS strongly believe that ivory trade fuels illegal killing of elephants. The operation was, therefore, a blessing to the African range states whose elephants have continuously been a target of this insidious crime.”
Illegal domestic ivory markets have been persistently identified by nature conservation agencies - including the United Nations-administered Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES) - as a major factor in continued poaching of elephants and illegal trade in ivory. Operation Costa was planned as a continued response to address the problem.
The operation was coordinated by the INTERPOL General Secretariat, based in Lyon, France, and involved the participation of agencies that are members of the INTERPOL Working Group on Wildlife Crime. Support was also provided by the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF), created in 1994 by governments in the region as a mechanism for regional co-operation to fight illegal trade in wild animals and plants.
Hundreds of staff from the police, customs, wildlife agencies, national intelligence agencies and the Lusaka Agreement Task Force were involved in the operation across the different countries.
The German Federal Government, as part of the INTERPOL General Secretariat Project OASIS initiative, provided funding to support this significant operation with additional support from The Humane Society of Canada and the participating agencies.
Operation Baba, conducted in 2008, was the first in a series of operations of this nature planned worldwide. INTERPOL Secretary General Ronald K. Noble has previously underlined the need for an international perspective in fighting such crimes.
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