Globally the operation, code named Operation Blizzard, has seen thousands of seizures and almost 200 suspects in illegal trade identified through coordinated sharing of information between participating countries.
Targeting the criminals and networks behind the illegal global trade in reptiles, Operation Blizzard (12 April to 22 May 2019) involved agencies from 22 countries and resulted in seizures ranging from live animals to high-end fashion products.
Within New Zealand, DOC staff inspected legally permitted reptile holders and traders, audited shipments of reptile leather products crossing the border, and assisted Customs and Ministry of Primary Industries staff in identifying and seizing reptile products at airports and the International Mail Centre.
The intelligence generated and shared with other countries has resulting in the launch of investigations into the illegal holding, selling, and import and export of reptiles – including endangered native New Zealand geckos.
“Our geckos can be quite popular pets overseas, because they are such a unique and rare species,” says DOC Principal Compliance Officer Dylan Swain.
“True animal lovers would never take part in this black market. As well as damaging wild populations, the conditions in which these lizards are transported for illegal trade can be appalling. Very few of them survive in the process.
“Sharing information with key agencies overseas and getting information from local holders of exotic and native reptiles has been instrumental in opening a number of new investigations into the illegal trade in reptiles and reptile products.
“Operation Blizzard is just the start of a renewed international focus on the illegal reptile trade,” Dylan Swain adds.
Operation Blizzard was jointly coordinated by INTERPOL and Europol to enhance international efforts in tackling the illegal trade in reptiles. Member countries of the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group developed the operation based on the growing need to share and collaborate on organized crime groups trading in live reptiles and reptile products.
Internationally, the operation has so far led to over 4,500 of seizures and the identification of important suspects, triggering arrests and investigations worldwide. Further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated as investigations continue.
“The illegal trade in reptiles has close associations with organised crime – Operation Blizzard sends a clear message to criminals that the law enforcement community is homing in on them,” added Daoming Zhang, INTERPOL’s Assistant Director in charge of Environmental Security.
“Operation Blizzard clearly demonstrates that by pooling our enforcement and intelligence resources, the global enforcement community firmly contributes to disrupting this destructive trade in reptiles. This operation is testimony to what can be achieved if we all work together.”
The results of the operation will continue to be analysed globally to generate further intelligence for use in future national, regional and international law enforcement efforts. DOC staff are currently following leads, interviewing suspects, and sharing intelligence with foreign authorities which may result in the prosecution of individuals and companies in New Zealand.