Governments and academia come together in Armenia to help fight serious wildlife crime

The participants from an IFAW-led training session on best practices to prevent illegal wildlife crime. Photo © FPWCRecently, about 40 people including participants from Armenia’s Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Finance, and Ministry of Agriculture; Georgia’s Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Environment and Far Eastern Branch of the Customs Academy of Russia all came together for an IFAW-led training session on best practices in helping to prevent illegal wildlife crime.

For the opening ceremony, Armenia’s Deputy Minister of the Environment Khachik Hakobyan came, making a thorough welcoming speech emphasizing how important it is that the training, known formally as the Prevention of Illegal Wildlife Trade or PIWT programme, takes place in Armenia. He graciously welcomed us all, and on behalf of our IFAW team, I expressed our gratefulness to Armenia and its people in serving as a host nation for this effort.

Surprisingly, at the opening Ceremony about eight TV crews were present and by the end of the ceremony the Deputy-Minister, Dr. Elsayed Mohamed and me had all been interviewed by Armenian TV.

Through the whole five days of this particular training, there will be a cameraman who will be filming with a goal to put together an hour long documentary.

Wonderful Juliette, a nice young Armenian customs officer volunteered to manage the customs team. After two days of training in the class, which were facilitated by Vivek Menon, our trainees were educated in the latest techniques of wildlife trafficking intelligence. And the most exciting day came - the time to use these new learnings in practice! 

What’s so special about that?

Well this is the day when all training participants have to run joint exercises at the actual border crossing point.

For that exercise we were invited to the cargo terminal in Yerevan. Only the day before, Dr. Mohamed and Charles Mackay, who has 38 years of experience as a customs officer working with prevention of wildlife trafficking at the Heathrow customs, divided all trainees in two groups of “customs teams” and “passengers”.

Now the two groups became kind of suspicious of each other.

Charles instructed the seven customs officers that they should organize the work efficiently, so that all 20+ passengers would not spend hours in line to get through and be on their way to their destinations.

Obviously, the task of the customs team was to try to confiscate illegal wildlife items, which passengers would try to smuggle.

Wonderful Juliette, a nice young Armenian customs officer (no jokes – a real one) volunteered to manage the customs team.

Meanwhile behind the closed door of the training room, Dr. Mohamed opened the suitcase he brought all the way from Dubai (no worries – officially with the required CITES permit) and welcomed “passengers” to choose the items.

He instructed each that they should try to hide these illegal items (if they want to try to be smugglers) or take an item and travel with each legally with a “CITES permit”. The passengers were also asked to fill out the permit themselves – frankly a tricky business, but the day before Dr. Mohamed had given an hour long presentation on that, so another opportunity to practice.

The suitcase was full of small and big items, such as tiny pieces of rosewood, a can with caviar, pieces of coral, ivory bracelets, bags and belts made from crocodile and piton skin, and even a three foot stuffed monitor lizard.

Actually all these items were confiscated from real smugglers and now are used for exactly this purpose: trainings.

Once teams were established, we sepearted, prepared our materials and then we all got together into the bus and off we went to the cargo customs terminal.

Juliette, was very efficient, serious and did not allow herself a single smile. She reorganized the customs zone, and put her staff in place: four customs officers to check passengers, one to regulate the passengers on their way to the customs zone and one to catch those, who would try to leave terminal without stopping at the customs point.

The exercise started.

And as always there were  new techniques of smuggling demonstrated: one of the “passengers” effectively smuggled an unnoticed a can of caviar in her hair, which was gathered in a pony-tail. Another “passenger”, was wearing couple of snake skin belts; noticed by customs. In his plastic cup, a coral was hidden under his candies.

In this plastic cup, a coral was hidden under the candies.

A big Armenian gentleman was brave enough to choose the three foot long monitor lizard as an item to smuggle, and he succeeded!

It was a miracle how he managed to pass through with the stuffed animal the  size of a young crocodile.

“Bribed” – he explained.

He asked the local cargo worker to take his coat out of the terminal and drop it in our bus. The lizard was wrapped in the coat.

I remember three years ago, at the training in Tbilisy, Georgia, the same monitor lizard was smuggled by a young woman, who was in real life the customs officer from Belorussia.

She pretended to be nine months pregnant, not feeling well and was trying to rush through “customs”. She was stopped, searched, and it turned out that she was pregnant with…the monitor lizard!

As always there was a lot of enthusiasm, jokes and laughter during this exercise. It went really well. It’s so nice to see how our trainees become a team of friends. That will be of great help for them in their day to day work.

By the end of the exercise, our trainers, now known to all as Elsayed, Vivek and Charles, looked at the results and it seemed, it was the first time in the history of IFAW training, that the “customs” team won!

New techniques of smuggling were demonstrated. Photo © IFAW/A. Filippova

Charles was obviously pleased!

In the afternoon Vivek and I went to the Ministry of Environment to meet with Armenian Vice-Minister Khachik Hakobyan. It was an excellent meeting and we were pleased to hear that Ministry has a very high opinion of the training and would like us to continue to conduct the trainings in Armenia on a regular basis.

The problem in Armenia is that the public is practically is unaware of the existence of the international CITES convention; and there are a lot of wildlife pets in private possession.

Earlier we were shown the villa of a very wealthy, local businessman, who keeps tigers and leopards.

And he is not the only one in Armenia.

We promised to help the Ministry in Armenia with its public education efforts. IFAW is well experienced in public education, running our “Think Twice” exhibitions around the world, most recently in Schiphol airport in Holland and in Hamburg, Germany. In Russia for months our wildlife education films were shown in Aeroexpress train running from the International Sheremetievo airport to Moscow and back.

One last day to go…

Tomorrow by the end of the day, all the participants of this IFAW training will receive certificates of achievement, signed by the IFAW team, the Minister of Environment of Armenia and our local partner, NGO FPWC.

The Vice Minister at the closing ceremony. Photo © FPWCThis training was only possible because of our partnering with FPWC in Armenia.

We became friends with the wonderful, dedicated and hardworking staff of FPWC: Ruben, Vicky, Manuk, Eva and others.

Thank you friends!

We will continue our work together for the better world for animals and people!

 --MV

For more information about IFAW efforts to combat wildlife crime, visit our campaign page.

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Experts

Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Executive Vice President
Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy