Issues Magazine

Operation “Cobra II” Nets Traffickers in Africa and Asia


International Fund for Animal Welfare

Law enforcement officers from 28 countries announced on 11 February 2014 the completion of a ground-breaking global operation to combat wildlife poaching and trafficking codenamed “Operation Cobra II”.

The month-long operation and capacity building activity promoted cross-border law enforcement cooperation and is drawing praise from the conservation community for its impressive results, including more than 400 arrests of wildlife criminals and 350 major wildlife seizures across Africa and Asia. IFAW provided financial support to investigations in Africa, which led to the arrests of major ivory traffickers operating between Africa and China.

Cobra II also resulted in the seizure of 36 rhino horns, over three metric tons of elephant ivory, over 10,000 turtles, more than 1,000 skins of protected species, more than 10,000 European eels, and over 200 metric tons of endangered rosewood. Among the many arrests were several wildlife kingpins.

Police, Customs, and wildlife officials from China, Africa, Southeast and South Asia, as well as the United States, joined together with international enforcement agencies to stage the operation out of two coordination centers in Nairobi and Bangkok, with links to field operatives across Africa and Asia. The “International Coordination Team” for Cobra II exchanged real time intelligence on a daily basis, targeting poachers and traffickers of endangered elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins, turtles and other species sought by wildlife criminals to feed the illicit wildlife black market.

The illegal wildlife trade has become so profitable -- some estimates as high as US$19 billion annually-- that it is increasingly controlled by organized crime groups that work between continents, with access to large amounts of cash, sophisticated technology, and corrupt transportation channels. Chinese and African operatives conducted the first successful joint sting operation during Cobra II that resulted in the arrest of an ivory trafficking kingpin who was funneling large amounts of poached elephants tusks between Africa and China.
Investigators joined together with the World Customs Organization, UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Interpol, ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Network, and the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF) to run the operation. New intelligence on poaching and trafficking syndicates was accumulated, arming governments to continue investigations with increasingly clearer targets. Operation members also evaluated Cobra II and made joint plans for continuing and improving their cross border operations in the future.

Operation Cobra was financially supported principally by the U.S. State Department Bureau of Narcotics and International Law Enforcement Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Joint training exercises that led to Cobra were conducted by the Special Investigation Group on wildlife trafficking, which has received technical and financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored Asia’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking Program (ARREST), implemented by the counter-trafficking organization Freeland, together with other organizations, including IFAW. IFAW provided additional financial support to Cobra 2, which was used to execute sting operations that nabbed major ivory traffickers, who are now behind bars. Freeland, IFAW and LATF mobilized and provided the financial, logistical and training support as well as tip-off information on wildlife trafficking syndicates.

“Wildlife crime ranks among the most serious, dangerous and damaging of international crimes along with human trafficking, drug running and illegal arms sales,” said Kelvin Alie, IFAW Director Wildlife Trade. “The best way to combat this crime is by Government, international organisations and the NGO community working together in unison.”