MADRID – Spanish police were investigating six people in connection to the recent seizure of over 200 specimens of stuffed animals, including several examples of protected species that were illegally manufactured in an unlicensed workshop and placed on the black market, the interior ministry said Tuesday.
In what was the largest operation against the illegal trafficking of animal products in terms of the monetary value of the contraband in the country to date, Spain’s Civil Guard police probed six people for accusations of crimes against fauna and for the possession, trafficking and sale of protected species following an operation in Alicante, a Mediterranean coastal city in southeast Spain.
“Wildlife trafficking is a grave criminal activity, which is considered the fourth-worst form of trafficking in the world, behind only the trafficking of drugs, forged documents and human beings,” Spain’s interior ministry said in a statement. “It has become one of the most lucrative criminal activities in the world.”
Police said 60 different species were discovered in the haul, including African lions, the white rhinoceros, Bengal tigers, hippopotamuses, Nile crocodiles, African antelopes, African elephants, leopards, snow leopards, bears and giraffes.
The seized objects included entire preserved and mounted bodies to household decorations made out of animal parts to skins.
Investigators said the main suspect behind the illegal workshop was a former shoemaker, according to Spanish online newspaper eldiario.es.
Many of the seized specimens face particular persecution in the wild for their body parts.
Although numbers have bounced back since strict international protection laws came into effect into the late 1980s, the African elephant, which roams through 37 different nations on the vast continent, has suffered a population loss of an estimated 110,000 specimens between 2006-2015, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Police, who launched the operation in May 2018, were first alerted to the alleged criminal set-up when a number of advertisements for stuffed animals emerged online, including examples protected by the CITES, whose sale is illegal.
“The majority of these adverts had a telephone number in common,” police said in a statement. “Given the grand scale of advertisements, officers first hypothesized that it could have to do with a taxidermy studio. However, the telephone number was registered to a construction company.”
Investigators got in touch with the seller to arrange a date to meet, which was to take place at an industrial park in Alicante.
Once there, police identified the purveyor, who also owned the construction company. Police then discovered the morbid haul once inside the building.
Agents later identified the suspect behind the taxidermy and the location of their studio, a house also located in Alicante.
“After trawling the web, agents found a discreet page offering taxidermy services in the same area, claiming to have more than 25 years of experience,” the statement said. “Having found the suspected taxidermist, SEPRONA (the Spanish ecological transition ministry’s anti-animal trafficking task force) found the suspect was acting without professional accreditation or an administrative license.”
The suspect was also dumping waste animal products straight into the sewer system, posing a threat to public health, police said.
Interpol and the United Nations estimate the international wildlife black market is worth around $90 billion a year.