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Genetic tests reveal three cartels control majority of African ivory smuggling trade

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African ivory smuggling trade

DNA tests carried out by researchers at the University of Washington on seized illicit ivory shipments have revealed that three major criminal networks dominate an international trade in animal products that is driving the slaughter of elephants in Africa.

In a paper published in Science Advances, the scientists explain how they were able to use data obtained through a DNA testing programme to determine that the majority of illegal African ivory shipments intercepted over a three-year period originated from three major smuggling cartels operating out of Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lomé, Togo.

The researchers also revealed that the wildlife smugglings behind the trade routinely spilt pairs of tusks into separate shipments of ivory, but were unable to explain the reasoning behind this.

Of the 38 large ivory seizures analysed by the team, 11 could be linked together by identifying tusk pairs that had been separated prior to shipping.

Lead author of the study, Samuel Wasser, Director of the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and a professor of biology, commented: “Our prior work on DNA testing of illegal ivory shipments showed that the major elephant ‘poaching hotspots’ in Africa were relatively few in number.

“Now, we’ve shown that the number and location of the major networks smuggling these large shipments of ivory out of Africa are also relatively few.”

Wasser said the ability to link ivory shipments in this manner will help law enforcement authorities gather evidence against the major wildlife trafficking cartels that are behind the majority of the large shipments of ivory originating from Africa.

“Most of these big criminals, when they’re finally taken down, it’s for financial crimes. When you’re following the money, you need to know the connections between all of these seizures, and that’s one of the real powers of this method we have developed,” he said.

According to a 2013 study published by PLOS ONE, large shipments currently dominate the illegal ivory trade, with consignments of at least half a tonne making some 70% of seizures between 1996 and 2011.

In November last year, researchers working on the international Barcode of Life (iBoL) project announced  that they had developed a portable DNA test designed to help border control officers identify animal and plant species being trafficked through customs checks by wildlife smugglers.

The Lab-in-a-Box portable DNA barcoding kit is designed to identify plant and animal species by analysing key points on their genome, making the process cheaper and quicker for customs officers in developing countries.

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Police in Spain smash sham marriage network that charged migrants €12,000 for bogus nuptials

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police in Spain smash sham marriage network

Spanish police have arrested 30 suspected members of a sham marriage network that facilitated illegal immigration by setting up partnerships of convenience.

In an operation backed by Europol, investigators from Spain’s Policía Nacional carried out 11 raids on multiple residential and business premises, seizing more than €10,000 ($11,093) in cash along with evidence that indicted those detained were involved in the facilitation of illegal immigration and document fraud.

Members of the network are said to have set up sham marriages between male illegal immigrants and Spanish women, allowing the men to formalise their stay in the European Union.

Migrants seeking to avail themselves of the gang’s services would be charged as much as €12,000, with their bogus partners being paid €3,000 for agreeing to enter into fake marriages.

Members of the gang, which was made up of members of both Moroccan and Spanish origin, used a complex web of shell companies to facilitate the conspiracy, and had also set up a sophisticated money laundering operation, through which their profits were funnelled.

The network was based in the Valencia town of Sagunto, but also had bases in Morocco, Belgium, France and Italy, a fact that triggered the involvement of Europol.

In a statement, the EU law enforcement agency said: “Europol provided coordination and analytical support and facilitated the information exchange.

“On the action day, Europol also deployed experts on-the-spot to cross-check operational information in real time against Europol’s databases and to provide technical expertise.”

The investigation that led to the dismantling of the network was launched after Spanish police were alerted to potential irregularities in residence permit applications in Sagunto.

The two alleged leaders of network, a Spaniard and a Frenchman both of Moroccan origin, owned several companies in Sagunto, through which the Spanish women to whom migrants were married were employed.

Migrants who used the network’s services would either remain in Spain or be transported by the gang to France or Belgium.

In January of last year, police in Belgium and Portugal broke up an organised criminal gang that paid mostly Portuguese women to enter into sham marriages with Pakistani men.

Investigators arrested 17 suspects in Belgium and a further three in Portugal in a series of coordinated raids in an operation that targeted a network that was said to have paid women thousands of euros to marry the illegal immigrants.

Back in August 2018, law enforcement agencies in Romania and Poland held five members of an organised crime gang suspected of being behind the arrangement of sham marriages for Indian and Nepali nationals looking to gain access to the EU.

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US scientists develop edible security tags to thwart drug counterfeiters

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edible security tags

Researchers at Purdue University have created a small edible tag that can be embedded into medicines in order to prevent the counterfeiting of drugs.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, scientists from the institution explain that drug counterfeiters would need to decipher complicated patterns not fully visible to the naked eye to get round the new security system.

The edible tags serve as digital fingerprints for individual pills and capsules, and are intended to help pharmacists verify the legitimacy of their stock before dispensing it to patients as well as being a method to discourage the counterfeiting of medicines.

According to the researchers, their invention uses an authentication technique called physical unclonable functions (PUF) that generate a different response each time they are stimulated, meaning that even drug manufacturers would not be able to recreate tags.

Taking the form of a transparent film made of silk and fluorescent proteins, the tags are easily digestible, meaning they can be consumed by patients when they take their mediation.

Commenting on the new technology, Jung Woo Leem, a postdoctoral associate in biomedical engineering at Purdue, said in a statement: “Our concept is to use a smartphone to shine an LED light on the tag and take a picture of it. The app then identifies if the medicine is genuine or fake.”

The tags currently last for at least two months before the proteins start to degrade, but Leem and his team are working on extending their life so as they can last until the expiry date of the drugs they are intended to protect.

As well as holding a security key that can verify the authenticity of medication, the tags could also hold other information, such as dosage instructions.

Leem has made two patent applications to protect the tags through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialisation.

According to a report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in November 2017, 10% of all pharmaceutical products circulating in low and middle-income countries at that time were either fake or of substandard quality.

The WHO said the trade in illicit pharmaceuticals is controlled by major organised crime networks who often channel their profits into other forms of illicit activity.

In March of last year, Europol revealed that a crackdown it had led on the sale of illicit pharmaceuticals across 16 countries in 2018 resulted in the seizure of some 13 million doses of counterfeit or smuggled medicines.

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British charity Dogs Trust warns pet lovers about being ‘dogfished’ by puppy smugglers

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‘dogfished’ by puppy smugglers

UK animal protection charity Dogs Trust has revealed that thousands of Britons may have been conned into buying puppies smuggled into the country illegally by organised criminal gangs in a practice it has dubbed “dogfishing”.

In a survey of 2,000 owners of puppies designed to establish how many may have purchased their pet from gangs that smuggled young dogs into the UK from countries in eastern Europe, the charity spoke with many animal lovers who described puppy dealers offering discounts for quick sales and lying about the age and breed of dogs.

The poll found that more than half (51%) of puppy buyers were not allowed to see the animal they were purchasing more than once, while 43% were not offered the chance to visit the puppy with its mother, which Dogs Trust described as two signs all might not be well.

Nineteen percent of respondents said they were not able to collect their puppy from the seller’s home, of whom a “worrying number” said they were asked to collect their new pet in a carpark or layby.

One woman told Dogs Trust how she was left heartbroken after purchasing a puppy that she saw advertised online on Christmas Eve, only to have to rush it to a vet for emergency treatment on Christmas Day because it had contracted parvo virus, a highly contagious and potentially fatal condition that causes lethargy, vomiting and diarrhoea.

The puppy had to be put down.

Launching a new campaign named Don’t Be Dogfished, Dogs Trust Veterinary Director said: “People think they are getting a healthy, happy puppy but behind the curtain lurks the dark depths of the puppy smuggling trade.

“Many of these poor puppies suffer significant health conditions or lifelong behavioural challenges, and sadly some don’t survive, leaving their buyers helpless and heartbroken – as well as out of pocket.

“This is why we are touring the country in a van like those used by puppy smugglers to educate the public on the shocking realities of the puppy smuggling trade and advising them how they can take action to avoid being ‘dogfished’.

“If it seems too good to be true, as hard as it is, walk away and report it.”

Many organised crime gangs across Europe have moved into puppy smuggling owing to the huge profit it returns for relatively little risk.

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