Operation Dragon: New evidence of the scale of corruption in the illegal turtle and tortoise trade in Southeast Asia

The Hague, the Netherlands, 6 December 2018

The Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) has released today, on the run up to Anti-Corruption Day, the report Operation Dragon: Revealing new evidence of the scale of corruption and trafficking in the turtle and tortoise trade detailing its Operation Dragon, a 2-year investigation (2016-2018) into the multi-million-dollar illegal trade of endangered reptile species in South and Southeast Asia and the scale of the corruption that enables this wildlife crime.

During Operation Dragon, the WJC worked closely with the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) of India, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN) and with the INTERPOL Environmental Crime Program. This collaboration yielded concrete results on the ground: eight wildlife trafficking networks were significantly disrupted, 30 arrests were made, and five traffickers have already been jailed, while other suspects are awaiting trial. More than 6,000 live reptiles, ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered, were seized by the authorities from the illegal pet trade.

“The significant amount of evidence gathered through undercover investigations and the thorough analysis of intelligence by the WJC provided an in-depth understanding of individual roles and network dynamics, enabling law enforcement agencies to target high-level traffickers, those benefiting most from this crime,” said Sarah Stoner, Senior Investigation Manager at the WJC.

Operation Dragon illustrated the scale and coordination of the corruption that facilitates the illegal trade of freshwater turtles and tortoises across the region. Meticulous intelligence analysis revealed the consistent enabling of trafficking through organised corruption of officials at airports and transport hubs. These ‘settings’ (as named by the traffickers themselves) allow the shipping of large quantities of stock minimising risks of detection for the networks.

WJC investigators were offered more than 20,400 freshwater turtles and tortoises from 16 different CITES Appendix I and II listed species, including critically endangered animals, during the course of the operation. The WJC was able to collect comprehensive pricing information: based on the traffickers’ own price lists, the wholesale value of the animals documented and offered is over USD 3M. Retail value would be considerably higher. This figure is based on current prices from several different data points across several countries and over a long time period (1).

“Our teams also noted an increase in the trafficking of rarer and higher-value freshwater turtles. Given their vulnerable population status, there is concern that any removal from the wild will have a significant impact on their ability to recover,” added Stoner.

The Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) operates globally to disrupt and help dismantle organised transnational criminal networks trading in wildlife, timber and fish. We do this by collecting evidence and turning it into accountability.

Note to editor:

(1) To illustrate, an individual black spotted turtle can be purchased in India for 22 USD, sold in Malaysia for 140 USD, or in Hong Kong for 300-400 USD at a retail level. At a wholesale level – a large batch of black spotted turtles can be purchased for 55 USD per individual, the estimated value of the illegal trade documented by the WJC is largely based on the wholesale value of these animals and not the retail, which is likely to be much greater.

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