LYON, France – An international operation against the illegal trade in wildlife and timber has seen hundreds of seizures worldwide as well as suspects arrested.

Codenamed Thunderstorm and targeting the people and networks behind global wildlife crime, the operation involved police, customs, border, environment, wildlife and forestry agencies from 92 countries and resulted in millions of dollars-worth of seizures.

The month-long (1-31 May) operation has so far brought 1,974 seizures and the identification of some 1,400 suspects, triggering arrests and investigations worldwide. Further arrests and prosecutions are foreseen as ongoing investigations unfold.

Total worldwide seizures reported to date include:

  • 43 tonnes of wild meat (including bear, elephant, crocodile, whale and zebra)
  • 1.3 tonnes of raw and processed elephant ivory
  • 27,000 reptiles (including 869 alligators/crocodiles, 9,590 turtles and 10,000 snakes)
  • almost 4,000 birds, including pelicans, ostriches, parrots and owls
  • several tonnes of wood and timber
  • 48 live primates
  • 14 big cats (tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar)
  • the carcasses of seven bears, including two polar bears

The operation saw eight tonnes of pangolin scales seized worldwide, including almost four tonnes by Vietnamese maritime authorities on board a ship arriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Two flight attendants were arrested in Los Angeles attempting to smuggle live spotted turtles to Asia in their personal baggage. Both suspects have been charged with smuggling CITES-protected species and a transnational investigation has been opened between the involved countries.

A man was arrested in Israel and awaits deportation to Thailand after his hunting photograph on social media led to the seizure of multiple wildlife items at his home including fox, jackal and mongoose bodies. Follow-up inquiries have revealed that the suspect was also engaged in people smuggling and illegal employment.

Canadian authorities intercepted a container holding 18 tonnes of eel meat arriving from Asia. Thought to be poached from Europe originally, the juvenile glass eels had been reared in Asia before being dispatched to North American markets for consumption.

An integrated global response

The second in a global ‘Thunder’ series initiated by the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group, Operation Thunderstorm was coordinated by INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization (WCO) in conjunction with the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), which includes the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretariat, UNODC and the World Bank

“Operation Thunderstorm has seen significant seizures at global level, showing how coordinated global operations can maximize impact,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

“By revealing how wildlife trafficking groups use the same routes as criminals involved in other crime areas – often hand in hand with tax evasion, corruption, money laundering and violent crime – Operation Thunderstorm sends a clear message to wildlife criminals that the world’s law enforcement community is homing in on them,” added the Secretary General.

An intelligence-driven operation

Investigative crime intelligence was gathered ahead of the operation to help target specific hotspots for action, including land and airport border points and wildlife parks.

Cars, trucks, boats and cargo transporters suspected of moving illicit products were also targeted with searches carried out by officers, often with specialist sniffer dogs and x-ray scanners.

“By leveraging the global network of worldwide environmental law enforcement experts and customs community’s commitment to protecting wildlife, WCO and its partners have clearly illustrated the power and effectiveness of international cooperation in keeping our natural heritage safe, both now and for future generations,” said WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya.

“Operation Thunderstorm clearly demonstrates that by pooling our transnational law enforcement collaboration in the field, WCO and INTERPOL firmly contribute to making sure that borders everywhere divide criminals but connect customs and law enforcement as a whole to make the world a safer place,” added Dr Mikuriya.

Results will continue to be analysed globally to generate intelligence which will be used as guidance in future national, regional and international law enforcement efforts.

Organized wildlife crime: everybody’s business

The organized crime groups behind wildlife crime target high-value animal and plant specimens, and operate through complex global criminal networks. Driven by profit, the activities of these groups can have devastating economic, social and environmental impacts.

Ben Janse van Rensburg, CITES Secretariat Chief of Enforcement Support said: “No one country, region or agency can tackle illegal wildlife trade alone. Collective action across source, transit and destination states is essential. On behalf of all ICCWC partner agencies, I commend the excellent work done in member countries - Operation Thunderstorm is testimony to what can be achieved if we all work together.”

Senior officer Grant Miller of the UK Border Force and head of the UK national CITES enforcement team, said: “Through Operation Thunderstorm, criminals have seen the products they need to ply their trade seized and their illegal profits targeted. Organized crime groups engaging in wildlife crime will feel the impact of this operation for a long time.”

Mr Miller is also chair of the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group, which leads a number of projects to combat the poaching, trafficking, or possession of legally protected flora and fauna.

Fireball Moon Venus


ESA.-  When Uwe Reichert grabbed his camera and tripod on the evening of 16 June 2018, he intended simply to image the conjunction of the then-three-day old Moon and the bright Venus.

In his backyard, near Heidelberg, Germany, trees and bushes blocked the view towards the western horizon, so he strolled through the neighbourhood searching for a better viewpoint. After taking a few pictures from various positions, he finally ended up on the outskirts of the town where he could see both celestial objects shining above some scattered clouds in the far distance.

He set the focal length of his 100-400mm telephoto lens to 180mm, chose a small aperture of f/10 so that bright Venus might produce some pictorial rays and switched the sensitivity to ISO 4000 to keep the exposure time short enough to avoid blurring due to Earth’s rotation. By cosmic chance, in the same instant that he pressed the button of the camera's remote control, Reichert saw something bright falling from the sky.

First, a white light flashed up above Venus, moved downward with high speed, changing colour into an intense greenish glare, and what once appeared as one object disintegrated to a spray of smaller sparkles keeping the original trajectory until dying out just over the horizon.

As a long-time observer, both amateur and professional, he had seen many different celestial phenomena, including countless meteors and some bright fireballs, but this one appeared odd: The sparkles looked more like an exploding firework than a dying shooting star. But both the speed of the object and the very narrow angle under which the sparkles fanned out were arguments against artificial fireworks or other pyrotechnics.

Within a few seconds, Reichert went through different emotional states ranging from astonishment and puzzlement to euphoria: Had he really seen a cosmic body burning up in Earth’s atmosphere? When he checked the display of his camera, he was even more surprised: The object had crossed the camera’s field of view leaving a bright streak on the image. The streak appeared to have pierced the clouds as an object would have done when falling from high altitude down to Earth. Clearly, this object had really been falling down, but taking perspective into account the whole trajectory must have been above the clouds. Therefore, the flight path must have been much farther away than it appeared.

As it turned out a few hours later, with the help of Reichert’s picture, the fireball’s ground track was identified to have been over Belgium, some 230 kilometres away from the photographer’s position. Hundreds of people had seen the fireball, and the many sightings were also reported from Belgium and Holland, where Reichert’s picture made it to several news websites the next day.

US Leaves UN Human Rights Council, Citing Bias


STATE DEPARTMENT, (CINDI SAINE-VOANEWS).- The United States has announced its official withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council, saying the organization is no longer worthy of its name.

At a joint press availability at the State Department Monday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told reporters, “For too long, the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.”

She accused the council of “chronic bias” against Israel.

She said the U.S.had tried for the past year to reform the council, but to no avail, adding.

“Look at the council membership, and you see an appalling disrespect for the most basic rights,” she said, citing human rights abuses by Venezuela, China, Cuba and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed, calling the council “an exercise in shameless hypocrisy.”

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N.Secretary-General António Guterres, released a statement in response.

“The Secretary-General would have much preferred for the United States to remain in the Human Rights Council. The U.N.’s Human Rights architecture plays a very important role in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.”

A group of 12 prominent nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights First, Freedom House and Save the Children, sent a letter to Pompeo, saying they are deeply disappointed with the decision. The letter recognized “legitimate concerns about shortcomings in the council’s structure and operations.”

“But none of these gaps warrants withdrawal from the council, and the U.S.’s absence will only compound the council’s weaknesses,” the letter said.

Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, called on the U.S. to reverse its decision, while admitting that the council has its flaws.

“Once again, President Trump is showing his complete disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms the U.S. claims to uphold. While the Human Rights Council is by no means perfect and its membership is frequently under scrutiny, it remains an important force for accountability and justice.”

Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia, told VOA that if countries are blocking reforms, the solution is to work harder, not to leave.

"The United States has allowed their myopia with Israel to blind itself to the fact that the human rights council works all around the world — on North Korea, on Myanmar, on Cambodia, on Nepal, on other countries in other places, Syria, Yemen. I mean you name it, the human rights council is a critical piece of the international human rights architecture," Robertson said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the U.S. announcement, tweeting, “The US decision to leave this prejudiced body is an unequivocal statement that enough is enough.”

University of South Carolina political science professor Josef Olmert told VOA, "This council has become an arena for anti-Semitic propaganda for years."

Some analysts praised the decision, including Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation, who credited the U.S. with taking a “measured approach.”

“The Trump administration could have left the council any time in the past 18 months, but it did not,” he said.

The decision came as the U.S. is coming under increasing criticism from a number of international human rights organizations for the Trump administration's separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents at the U.S. southern border.

The U.N. General Assembly created the 47-member Human Rights Council in 2006 to replace the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Based in Geneva, the HRC is tasked with promoting and protecting global human rights and addressing rights violations.

Haley visited the HRC last June and said the U.S. was not seeking to leave the body, but to “reestablish the council's legitimacy.”

She said Washington wanted the council to remove “Item Seven” from its agenda — on the “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” — which she called “scandalous” for singling out Israel for criticism.

Haley also called for reforms to the body, including action to prevent some of the world’s worst rights abusers from having a seat on the council, in part by making the election process more competitive and transparent.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has also announced its plans to withdraw at the end of this year from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, citing its “continuing anti-Israel bias,” and has cut its contributions this year by 80 percent to UNRWA, the agency that assists Palestinian refugees.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.


Tags: UN Human Rights Council


Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses concern over migration and asylum policies and measures recently adopted in the United States. In this regard, the IACHR condemns the death of Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old Maya-Mam indigenous woman from Guatemala, who was shot and killed by US Border Patrol. Likewise, the IACHR expresses deep concern over the new migration policy known as “zero tolerance” aimed at deterring migration by separating children from their parents, as well as recent legal decisions that restrict access to refugee status on the basis of domestic and gang violence. The IACHR calls on US authorities to prioritize human rights in their policies and practices.

According to publicly available information, on May 23, 2018, a Border Patrol agent fired on a group of people he believed to be undocumented immigrants in Rio Bravo, Texas, close to the border with Mexico. As a result, Claudia Patricia Gómez González was shot in the head and killed. Claudia traveled to the US from Guatemala in search of better opportunities to work and study. The Commission urges the US authorities to carry out a thorough investigation and to provide a satisfactory and convincing explanation of what happened.

The Commission also expresses its deep concern on the new “zero tolerance” policy announced on April 7, 2018 which states that everyone crossing the border illegally will be prosecuted. Due to this policy, children are being separated from their parents and referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement where they could be released to an adult sponsor in the US, a foster family, or be held in a shelter.

The IACHR reaffirms that children have the right not to be separated from their parents because detention is never in the best interest of the child. The Commission requests the US authorities to identify migrant children who require international protection and do not resort to the deprivation of liberty of children in any circumstance, including with the objective of ensuring family unity.

The IACHR reiterates that the non-refoulement principle contained in International Refugee Law establishes the prohibition of expelling or returning persons that in any manner would have their life or freedoms threatened on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion.
Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, the IACHR's Country Rapporteur for the United States, highlighted: “Irregular migration is not a crime. States must take into account the best interest of the child. The family is the fundamental unit recognized in national and international human rights law within all democratic States and are legally recognized and protected therein.”

Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva, Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, stated: “While States have the right to establish their immigration policies; policies, laws and practices implemented on migration must respect and ensure the human rights of all migrants, which are rights and liberties that derive from human dignity. Immigration policies and practices can never be used as mechanisms to cause cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments, to separate families, to attack children and their families, or to place the lives of persons in need of protection at greater risk. This is just inhuman and above any comprehension.”

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

Black hole candidate and host galaxy


BARCELONA, (ESA).- ESA’s XMM-Newton observatory has discovered the best-ever candidate for a very rare and elusive type of cosmic phenomenon: a medium-weight black hole in the process of tearing apart and feasting on a nearby star.

There are various types of black hole lurking throughout the Universe: massive stars create stellar-mass black holes when they die, while galaxies host supermassive black holes at their centres, with masses equivalent to millions or billions of Suns.

Lying between these extremes is a more retiring member of the black hole family: intermediate-mass black holes. Thought to be seeds that will eventually grow to become supermassive, these black holes are especially elusive, and thus very few robust candidates have ever been found.

Now, a team of researchers using data from ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray space observatory, as well as NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and Swift X-Ray Telescope, has found a rare telltale sign of activity. They detected an enormous flare of radiation in the outskirts of a distant galaxy, thrown off as a star passed too close to a black hole and was subsequently devoured.

“This is incredibly exciting: this type of black hole hasn’t been spotted so clearly before,” says lead scientist Dacheng Lin of the University of New Hampshire, USA.

“A few candidates have been found, but on the whole they’re extremely rare and very sought after. This is the best intermediate-mass black hole candidate observed so far.”

This breed of black hole is thought to form in various ways. One formation scenario is the runaway merger of massive stars lying within dense star clusters, making the centres of these clusters one of the best places to hunt for them. However, by the time such black holes have formed, these sites tend to be devoid of gas, leaving the black holes with no material to consume and thus little radiation to emit – which in turn makes them extremely difficult to spot.

“One of the few methods we can use to try to find an intermediate-mass black hole is to wait for a star to pass close to it and become disrupted — this essentially ‘activates’ the black hole’s appetite again and prompts it to emit a flare that we can observe,” adds Lin.

“This kind of event has only been clearly seen at the centre of a galaxy before, not at the outer edges.”

Lin and colleagues sifted through data from XMM-Newton to find the candidate. They identified it in observations of a large galaxy some 740 million light-years away, taken in 2006 and 2009 as part of a galaxy survey, and in additional data from Chandra (2006 and 2016) and Swift (2014).

“We also looked at images of the galaxy taken by a whole host of other telescopes, to see what the emission looked like optically,” says co-author Jay Strader of Michigan State University, USA.

“We spotted the source flaring in brightness in two images from 2005 — it appeared far bluer and brighter than it had just a few years previously. By comparing all the data we determined that the unfortunate star was likely disrupted in October 2003 in our time, and produced a burst of energy that decayed over the following 10 years or so.”

The scientists believe that the star was disrupted and torn apart by a black hole with a mass of around fifty thousand times that of the Sun.


Tags: Mars ESA Newton observatory