Interpol’s public appeal hopes to catch nine fugitives suspected of environmental crimes costing hundreds of millions of dollars, in a move to catapult the issue to the forefront of international law enforcement.
Stefano Carvelli, the head of Interpol’s fugitive investigative support unit, said that the offences were only the tip of the iceberg of an environmental crime wave, which agency reports have estimated to be worth $70bn-$213bn annually.
“If we talk about illegal logging, we have many pending cases,” he said. “We also have many serious biodiversity cases. The problem is very big, I can feel it. These are crimes with many, many different parameters.”
One fugitive, Ahmed Kamran, 29, is charged with smuggling over 100 live animals – including giraffes and impalas – from Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro airport to Qatar on a military airplane.
Sergey Darminov, 50, is thought to have led an illegal crab-fishing operation in Russia that netted $450m. Another, Adriano Giacobone, 57, is wanted on charges that include illegal transport and discharge of toxic waste, poisoning water beds, kidnapping, illegal detention, carrying of firearms, aggravated theft and violence against a police officer.
A joint Interpol-UNEP report earlier this year linked the revenues from environmental crime to extremist militias such as the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda, the Janjaweed in Sudan and al-Shabaab in Somalia.
While sources say there are indications connecting some of the fugitives under investigation to terrorist groups, Interpol will officially neither confirm nor deny them.
The law enforcement agency stresses that members of the public should report any sightings of the fugitives to Interpol or their national police force, and not approach them directly.
“We consider all of these people to be dangerous, especially because the nature of these crimes required the involvement of organised criminal networks,” Carvelli said.
The public appeal follows an inquiry by 23 officers into the whereabouts of 139 suspects wanted by 36 countries. The investigation has been code-named Operation Infra-Terra.
Since its launch last month, Operation Infra-Terra has raised the profile of Interpol’s environmental crimes unit, which focuses on illegal exploitation of the world’s flora and fauna, and hazardous waste dumping.
Past Interpol public appeals have focused on themes like fugitives in the Americas, and led to over 600 arrests. Officers working on Operation Infra-Terra now hope for similar results.
“Until recently, environmental offences were not even considered a crime by many countries but as the years have passed, they have realised that environmental crime is a serious internal threat to our societies,” said Andreas Andreou, a criminal intelligence officer with Interpol’s environmental security unit. “It involves organised criminal networks which smuggle drugs, weapons and people. If a poacher need guns, for instance, here we have a crossover with arms trafficking.’
Routes for trafficking ivory may also be used for trafficking weapons and the more profitable line may then be used to finance other ventures, Interpol say.
In the future, the agency intends to focus its activities geographically, with illegal logging and timber trade inquiries centred on the Americas, efforts to protect wildlife species – particularly tigers – undertaken in Asia, pollution investigations that pinpoint Europe, and a crackdown on the poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa.
Rhinos have already disappeared from several Asian and African countries and 94% of rhino poaching takes place in just two countries – Zimbabwe and South Africa – where it has increased from an estimated 50 animals in 2007, to over 1,000 in 2013, due to the involvement of crime syndicates.
Between 20,000-25,000 elephants are killed every year in Africa, and forest elephant populations are thought to have declined by 62% between 2002-2011.
A letter co-signed by 81 MEPs was sent to the European commission last week calling for urgent action to address the problem.
“The unprecedented scale of illegal poaching is fuelling instability and driving many species to the brink of extinction,” the Liberal MEP Catherine Bearder said. “Unless we take action now, our grandchildren will only be able to see wild animals such as elephants, lions and rhinos in their history books.”
Persuading officials in some countries to address the problem remains an uphill battle, and stricter law enforcement efforts and penalties may be needed internationally, Interpol sources say.
The man accused of re-enacting Noah’s Ark in reverse
Ahmed Kamran is wanted for an environmental crime that resembles a macabre inversion of Noah’s Ark, re-enacted at Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro airport. Shortly before he jumped bail, witnesses told a Tanzanian court how Kamran, 29, paid for and oversaw the loading of more than 100 live animals and birds – including giraffes, impalas and wildebeest – onto a military plane bound for Qatar.
The animal cargo, worth $113,715, reportedly included: two lappet-faced vultures, two serval cats, two impalas, two black verreaux’s eagles, three elands, four giraffes, four ground hornbill, five spring hares, six oryx, seven kori bustard, 10 dik-dik, 20 Grant’s gazelle, 68 Thomson’s gazelle, and a secretary bird.
The smuggling operation in November 2010 was fraught and dramatic. Three giraffes died in a cage before being taken to the airport, according to one self-declared member of Kamran’s gang. “We went back to the game park and captured three giraffes and other animals and transported them into the cage of animals to compensate for the dead ones,” Maulid Hamis reportedly testified.
At the airport, Kamran and the plane’s pilot allegedly directed proceedings, which began when four men decamped from a minivan on the runway to unload the animal cargo. One witness said that he was threatened with the loss of his job when he asked why no national security agents were present at the airport that night. Although the passengers of the Qatar defence force airplane carrying the animals had no diplomatic passports, they were given clearance for take-off.
Three Tanzanian nationals and Kamran were charged over the incident, but Kamran skipped bail, and may now be in Kenya, Pakistan or Qatar. Interpol officers hope that a blotchy and pixelated photo of him may help to trigger a memory somewhere.
“Even the smallest detail, which you might think is insignificant, has the potential to break a case wide open when combined with other evidence the police already have,” said Ioannis Kokkinis, criminal intelligence officer with Interpol’s fugitive investigative support unit. “Sometimes all it takes is a fresh pair of eyes to bring new momentum to an investigation and provide the missing clue.”