Major WCO operation in Sub-Saharan Africa results in the seizure of substantial amounts of rhino horns, ivory tusks and pangolin scales

22 November 2017

From 1 July to 30 September 2017, the World Customs Organizations (WCO) conducted Operation “Save REP,” targeting the illicit trafficking of rhino horns, elephant tusks and pangolin scales in the west, east and southern regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

Save REP proved to be one of the most successful counter-wildlife trafficking operations conducted on the African continent in recent years: an estimated 193 kg of rhino horn was seized, as well as 677 kg of elephant ivory, 3 pangolin hides and 70 kg of pangolin scales.

Twenty-five individuals were arrested pursuant to this operation and multiple, active ongoing investigations are currently underway. Numerous smuggling patterns, methods and techniques were identified during the operation, both as a result of the intelligence assessment employed and as part of the operational phase.

Composed of three phases – capacity building/investigative training, intelligence training, and operational planning training – the operation involved the participation of 10 Customs services from sub-Saharan nations: Angola, Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia, as well as observers from Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

This was the first WCO wildlife trafficking operation in which one of the participating Customs services – the Uganda Revenue Authority – hosted the Operational Control Unit (OCU). The WCO strategy for designing the operation with an African nation hosting the OCU was in furtherance of developing sufficient national expertise to afford participating Customs services the ability to initiate and host other sub-regional wildlife trafficking operations, thus multiplying the outputs of WCO training and enforcement efforts.

In May 2017, during a five-day WCO Operation Planning Workshop in Windhoek, Namibia, WCO trainers offered a wide variety of scenarios to a group of 26 country representatives, which addressed the regional challenges in combating the smuggling of CITES-listed wildlife items and the formulation of a plan to counter such illicit trafficking. Knowing the nodes, such as commercial airline passengers, air cargo, international mail and express courier businesses, every participating Customs service designed its own individual national operation plan in support of the broader regional effort.

Furthermore, the WCO invited DHL to participate and contribute to the training and to provide value-added intelligence for the design of the operation plans. Private-public sector partnership in counter-wildlife trafficking operations is critical to tackling the exploding numbers of trafficked CITES-restricted wildlife items in sub-Saharan Africa.

Operation Save REP has been fully endorsed by the participating Customs Services, and all participants support the expansion of this model for future endeavours in the same arena. The WCO plans to engage many of these nations in sub-regional efforts along the same lines in the coming years.

It is only through collaborative, border-transcending efforts that the WCO and its Member Customs administrations can hope to contain the scourge of illicit wildlife trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa. The WCO believes this to be the best model for countering illicit trade and for saving critically-endangered African animals, whose very existence is threatened due to a heartless, economically driven trade.

The operation fell within the scope of the INAMA Project, aimed at strengthening the enforcement capacity of Customs services in sub-Saharan Africa, while focusing on the illegal trade in wildlife, particularly on species listed in the appendices of the CITES Convention regulating the international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora.