What will it take to stop illegal online wildlife trafficking?

Back in 2015, a team of covert investigators from the newly-formed Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) descended upon Nhi Khe, a settlement south of the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. It is a well-known hub for the illegal trade in wildlife products.

The team ran two investigations over the course of a year to uncover the scale, extent and modus operandi of wildlife smugglers who traffic products across the border into China, most of which are derived from endangered African and Asian species such as elephants, tigers, pangolins, helmeted hornbills and more specifically in this case, rhinos and their horns.

“We investigated the criminality of 51 subjects engaging in wildlife trade in between July 2015 and May 2016. Social media was highlighted as a hugely relevant method of selling wildlife – 61 per cent of traders were found to use either Facebook or WeChat to trade illegally,” the team said in its 2017 report, Black Business, authored by the team.

Overall, investigators managed to build a case file featuring over 5000 pages of evidence against 51 traders. Although the report does not disclose what became of the traders in terms of criminal proceedings, it estimates that products with a minimum value of US$ 445,356 were traded on Facebook, indicating of a shift in the way the illicit animal trade is being conducted.

Transnational criminal networks engaging in the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) are doing more and more of their multimillion-dollar trade on the internet, using online platforms and social media tools to conduct the illicit business.

Traffickers are shifting away from the physical markets that have come under increased pressure from law enforcement agencies across Africa and Asia, the former being the primary source for illegal wildlife and wildlife products, and the latter largely providing the end market.

However, the capacity to combat digitally-enabled wildlife crime remains low in many countries, with law enforcement agencies lacking the technical know-how to detect and stop the trade.

According to the WJC’s own figures, “wildlife crime has reached a crisis point,” with an elephant being killed every 30 minutes for its ivory and rhinos being poached every eight hours for their horns, which can fetch up to as much as US$30,000 on the black market for one kilogram of the horn tip alone. Unbelievably, there are only an estimated 4,000 tigers left in the wild.

Limited capacity to detect and disrupt

Created in 2015 and based in the Hague, the Netherlands, the WJC’s primary mandate is to disrupt and help dismantle organised transnational criminal networks trading in wildlife, timber and fish. But it has also developed tools for fighting the wildlife trade online, such as social media intelligence-gathering in both closed and open social media spaces. Although there is currently no data on the number of wildlife traffickers that have been brought to justice, the WJC works closely with national law enforcement agencies in relevant countries, as well as Interpol.

Law enforcers and wildlife authorities can use social media to discover criminal activity, collect of evidence, and identify the location of criminals and their networks. It can also be deployed to create awareness of the dangers of animal trophies and help end a demand for wildlife products.

However, few governments in Africa and Asia have the capacity to detect and disrupt the illicit wildlife business, and even fewer have the necessary laws to combat it.

The result, international law enforcement and conservation agencies say, is that more wildlife and their products are being trafficked from Africa to Asia each year, endangering iconic species in a trade that is becoming increasingly hard to detect, especially with the increased use of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

“The internet has provided traffickers and traders with greater visibility, enabled them to reach a larger pool of consumers of illegal wildlife products and increased opportunities for privacy,” said Simone Haysom, a senior crime analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Increased use of the internet, she says, facilitates the easier and faster exchange of information between middlemen, retailers and consumers across continents.

“It may all start with a simple photo of an adorable animal posted on a Facebook page, but this seemingly innocent post will bring together people with common interests including enthusiasts and collectors,” the official told reporters at a media workshop held in Bangkok, Thailand between 5 – 9 November 2018, hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

“Criminal networks are taking advantage of cyberspace to avoid traditional street markets and are making maximum use of encrypted communication channels offered by tools such as closed and secret groups on Facebook to conduct their illicit business,” Haysom observed.

If allowed to continue to thrive, this burgeoning internet trade will put African ‘charismatic megafauna’ such as elephants, rhinos and pangolins in severe danger. In addition, thousands of other species which receive far less attention are also being trafficked in new emerging markets such as Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East where they are being sold as pets, said Haysom.

Treat this a crime – not just a conservation issue

According to Ricardo Forrester, a crime analyst with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)- Wildlife Asia, just like with other forms of illicit online trading such as arms, drugs and human trafficking, trading in illegal wildlife online cushions gangs against raids by law enforcers, while at the same time making it easier to reach global markets.

“It makes a lot of financial sense because trading online helps avoid taxation, any form of regulation, offers greater protection from law enforcement and it is easier to reach global markets,” the investigator observed.

The internet he says offers a “dynamic, flexible and malleable” marketplace that also eliminates the need for physical meetings and transactions, while allowing for secrecy and anonymity.

On the other hand, his colleague Salvatore Amato, a law enforcement specialist also with USAID-Wildlife Asia, notes that wildlife trafficking must be treated as a crime and not a conservation issue. This, he said, requires a holistic approach that includes building enforcement capacity both at the source of the trade and at the other end of the supply chain.

Disruption of the trade would also benefit from the enactment of national laws on cyber wildlife crime said Marcos Mileo Brasil, a global forestry crime intelligence analyst at Interpol, who said his organsation is currently working with member countries to help build their capacity to disrupt and stop illicit markets in species through its Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Committee (ECEC) and Working Groups.

According to Sam Weru, a Kenya-based conservation consultant and the former conservation director for WWF Kenya, Africa governments and conservationists need to take steps to prevent their own countries from not only being the major source of trafficked wildlife, but also becoming emerging markets for the end products.

“Currently the trade itself is not widely practiced locally, but the continent will catch up as internet usage grows, and as the middle class expands,” he tells Equal Times. “What we need to do is prepare ourselves to be able to tackle it early enough.”