Operation Dragon: Revealing new evidence of the scale of corruption and trafficking in the turtle and tortoise trade

The illegal trade in freshwater turtles and tortoises, including species on the brink of survival, to supply the pet trade, is a multi-million-dollar industry. The scale of the trafficking gives cause for serious concern about the ability of some of the plundered populations to recover in the wild. The Wildlife Justice Commission launched Operation Dragon in 2016 to shine a spotlight on the crimes, the criminals and the corruption that facilitates trafficking.

While there have been significant seizures of large quantities of live animals in Asia in recent years, those implicated have been exclusively low-level, easily replaced couriers, leaving those who organise and profit the most from the trade untouched. The Wildlife Justice Commission sought to change that.

New evidence of the scale of corruption in the illegal turtle and tortoise trade in Southeast Asia.

Beginning in 2016 and lasting two years, Operation Dragon systematically gathered evidence on the inner workings of eight major trafficking networks, through undercover investigators on the ground and meticulous intelligence analysis.

The investigation exposed the dark dealings of high-level wildlife criminals; revealed the consistent enabling of trafficking through organised corruption of officials at airports and transport hubs; documented in detail how the networks operate, fix prices and coordinate throughout the supply chain; and ultimately empowered law enforcement agencies to target and convict high-level traffickers and disrupt multiple wildlife crime networks.

The actionable intelligence and evidence gathered by the Wildlife Justice Commission investigators provided an in-depth understanding of individual roles and network dynamics, enabling law enforcement agencies to target the most prolific criminals in a time-critical manner.

Wildlife Justice Commission

Why is the Wildlife Justice Commission releasing this report?

As a result of Operation Dragon, eight wildlife trafficking networks were significantly disrupted, and 30 arrests made. Five traffickers have already been jailed, while other suspects are still awaiting trial at the time of writing. Another suspect has been subjected to an INTERPOL’s Red Notice after absconding following his arrest and is the subject of Malaysia’s first Red Notice for wildlife crime. More than 6,000 freshwater turtles and tortoises, including threatened species such as the black spotted turtle Geoclemys hamiltonii and the Indian star tortoise Geochelone elegans, were seized from traffickers.

During Operation Dragon, Wildlife Justice Commission investigators collaborated with several law enforcement agencies, including a joint operation between the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (India), the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN) and INTERPOL Environmental Crime Program resulting in the arrest of a key broker, operating across several countries.