A Europol-backed Spanish police investigation into wildlife crime, the smuggling of endangered species and other animal abuses has resulted in the arrest 29 members of an international organised crime network.
Working in close cooperation with Mexican law enforcement officials, officers from Operation SUZAKU detained the suspects in Spain and a number of other countries.
The operation resulted in the seizure of some 2,000 animals.
In all, it is thought the ring could have made somewhere in the region of €500,000 from its activities over the course of the last few years.
Leaders of the network controlled a number of operatives who were tasked with smuggling a variety of endangered bird species into Spain from various locations across Latin America and Africa, using mules to sneak the animals past customs checks
Law enforcement agencies and animal welfare organisations from 18 countries were involved in the operation, which was part of a wider EU effort to clamp down on the activities of organised criminal gangs involved in the international trafficking of endangered species.
Many of the birds trafficked by the network, which were invariably protected under endangered species laws in their countries of origin, died in transit, with the death rate of some shipments reaching as high as 50%.
The leader of the network was a Spanish national from the northern provinces of Álava, who had previous convictions for similar crimes.
Wildlife crime is becoming increasingly attractive to organised criminals due to the large amount of money that can be made from the trade and the comparatively lenient punishments for being caught smuggling animals.
According to a study published by the WWF last April, wildlife crime generates an estimated £15 billion (€17 billion) annually, making it the fourth largest international crime trade.
Speaking when the report was published, Chris Gee, Head of Campaigns at WWF-UK, commented: “Even the wildlife living in places which should benefit from the highest levels of protection are suffering at the hands of criminals.
“Not only does this threaten the survival of species, but it’s also jeopardising the future heritage of these precious places and the people whose livelihoods depend on them.
“We urgently need to see a united front from [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] and the World Heritage Convention to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, especially from these most precious of places; from the poaching and harvesting on site, to the global trafficking and demand.”
In 2016, the European Commission outlined an in-depth plan for the EU to tackle wildlife crime, noting that Europe has become a key market for the trade.