Social media threat to wildlife
International syndicates trading in endangered wildlife have gone hi-tech by turning to social media to fuel their multibillion-dollar business to escape increasing pressure from global law enforcement operations.
Using secret "closed groups" on Facebook, criminals have expanded their networks tenfold, with wildlife protection groups estimating that nearly 70000 people are members of these secret sites.
South Africa is not immune, with a roaring sale of endangered plants and animals being conducted on the internet.
A report - "The Trading Faces" - produced by Traffic, a UK wildlife protection monitoring group, has revealed how international animal traffickers are turning to social media, especially Facebook, to ply their trade.
The document, which monitored Facebook over five months, reveals 14 closed groups trading in Malaysian endangered wildlife.
Among the animals sold were sun bears, gibbons, otters, the rare Indonesian yellow-crested cockatoo and Madagascan tortoises.
A separate investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found more than 30000 live wild animals, as well as animal parts and products, for sale in 16 countries on 280 online marketplaces.
All the animals are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The Traffic report showed most of the Facebook groups were "closed", requiring membership to view and trade online.
Traffic spokesman Richard Thomas said the closed groups boasted almost 70000 active members, with 106 identified as animal-sellers.
The previously undocumented trade has sparked alarm among international and South African wildlife protection groups, with the Traffic report's co-author Kanitha Krishnasamy revealing that the rise of social media had enabled the creation of a thriving marketplace for threatened wild animals, often as pets.
Traffic's Sarah Stoner, a senior crime analyst, said the wildlife protection body believed the findings reflected a greater worldwide problem.
"Social media's ability to put traffickers in touch with many potential buyers quickly, cheaply and anonymously is concerning," Stoner said.
Tania McCrea-Steele, the IFAW's global wildlife cyber crime project leader, said: "Our intelligence indicates that the online marketplaces' trade in endangered wildlife is a significant issue in South Africa.
"These include the sites of Gumtree and eBay."
IFAW spokesman Christine Pretorius said: "In South Africa the emerging threat on online market- places is the trade in rare and endangered cycads and aloes."