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How anonymity on the internet aids illegal animal trade

12 October 2018 - 06:34 By Nico Gous
File photo of ivory seized by customs officials.
File photo of ivory seized by customs officials.
Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

The internet gives wildlife traders new tools for illegal trade‚ and others the means to fight back.

That is what the president of International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)‚ Azzedine Downes‚ said in the organisation’s latest research report‚ titled “Disrupt: Wildlife Cybercrime”. 

IFAW project manager Tania McCrea-Steele said: “As organised criminal gangs are using ever more sophisticated means for trafficking ivory‚ we‚ too‚ are using pioneering methods to stop poaching and wildlife trafficking‚ from community involvement to hi-tech innovation. We need to create a network to defeat a criminal network.”

The organisation researched online wildlife trading on online marketplaces and social media platforms over six weeks last year in France‚ Germany‚ Russia and the United Kingdom. They excluded closed or private Facebook groups‚ password-protected websites and the dark web.

They found 11‚772 protected wildlife specimens in 5‚381 online advertisements or posts on 106 online marketplaces and four social media platforms. The animals were worth about R57‚6m ($3‚9m). Four out of every five posts were live animals for sale and the rest were animal parts and products.

Reptiles were the most popular‚ making up 37% of the ads‚ followed by birds (30%) and ivory-related posts (18%).

The researchers created a separate category for ivory because sometimes they could not identify the species from the teeth or tusks.

The most popular reptiles were turtles and tortoises‚ while parrots and owls were wanted birds.

McCrea-Steele said wildlife traffickers exploited their anonymity on the internet to trade without borders for 24 hours a day.

“Many online marketplaces and social media platforms are working hard to stop this‚ but we all have a part to play. If we don’t buy‚ they don’t die.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) is an international agreement between governments which governs the commercial trade in endangered and threatened wildlife.

The report said it was worried about the so-called dark web‚ a clandestine version of the internet where anything is available for sale. 

“Concerns have been expressed that wildlife traffickers may also be turning to the dark net as a result of enforcement efforts targeting open source sites... Criminal behaviour will always adapt to explore new opportunities to trade illegal goods.”