Authorities in Spain have dismantled a massive transnational reptile trafficking network, highlighting how the low risks and high rewards of wildlife trafficking fuel the lucrative illicit trade.
A wide-reaching wildlife trafficking network smuggling reptiles from around the world into Europe was dismantled by Spain’s Environmental Ministry and national civil security force in conjunction with Europol on March 9.
Spanish authorities seized more than 600 reptiles of endangered or protected status that had been trafficked from countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania for breeding or sale in lucrative European markets.
This little #dragon is free again! Big hit by @guardiacivil and @Europol against an Organized Crime Group trafficking more than 600 protected reptiles from the Americas, Asia, Africa and Ozeania. #EnvironmentalCrime #ProtectedSpecies #Environment pic.twitter.com/6VdsYqTB0a
— Europol (@Europol) March 10, 2018
The investigation was first sparked in the Netherlands, where Dutch authorities arrested three Spanish nationals in September 2016 after customs officials discovered more than 250 reptiles from Mexico being smuggled inside their suitcases. Authorities said the animals were destined for Spain and had an estimated black market value of nearly $186,000 (150,000 Euros).
Subsequent investigations uncovered that the individuals were part of a broader criminal network that captured animals in Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Oman and South Africa and used “mules” to illegally import them into Europe. Once trafficked into Europe, the reptiles were intended for sale at specialized trade shows for dissemination across the continent, and at times to destinations elsewhere in the world.
The trafficking network also engaged in falsification of commerce documents required for the legal possession of these animals, which were often “laundered” among real documents authorizing the breeding or possession of similar species. As a result, many of the reptiles seized were dead and frozen, a practice that allows traffickers to use the legal documentation of dead animals for similar illicitly trafficked species.
The majority of the reptile species seized are considered threatened and are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement to regulate the global wildlife trade.
InSight Crime Analysis
The expansive wildlife trafficking network dismantled in Spain serves as a stark reminder of the profitability and transnational reach of the illegal trade, as well as the limits of current law enforcement efforts to combat it.
Wildlife trafficking is one of the most profitable transnational organized crime activities in the world, generating between $7 and $23 billion of illicit profit annually, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
However, the lucrative illicit trade of animals receives relatively less attention from authorities than drugs and guns, and there is little consensus on what policies are most successful to combat it.
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An additional obstacle to the dismantling of criminal networks like the one uncovered in Spain is that many anti-wildlife trafficking campaigns focus on iconic animals like big cats and elephants, while other high-risk species receive less attention.
Reptiles, though not often in the spotlight, are the second-most trafficked species of animals worldwide, accounting for 28 percent of all animals seized globally between 1999 and 2015, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).