The rise of the Internet has revolutionized the way ideas, information and merchandise are exchanged. This is largely due to the Internet’s ability to facilitate communication and foster new commercial partnerships and social relationships around the globe. However, the Internet also provides an unprecedented platform for conducting undocumented trade in wildlife, making it one of the major wildlife conservation challenges of our generation. The number of Internet users is growing rapidly in China. A survey released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) shows that, by the end of June 2009, China had the world’s largest population of Internet users, with 338 million users. Among these, 87.9 million are online shoppers. This number has continued to increase rapidly, even during the recent economic recession.
eBay Eachnet used to be the biggest auction site in China, with more than 10 million users, but its market share has dropped gradually since 2004 with the launch of another Web-based auction site, Taobao. In 2007, eBay Eachnet closed its main auction site in mainland China and entered into a joint venture to create Tom Eachnet (www.eachnet.com). Taobao (www.taobao.com) occupies most of the market. It is a subsidiary company of China’s largest e-commerce platform (www.alibaba.com), which claimed to have more than 240 million users from 200 countries in 2007. Its transactions exceeded CNY 1,690 million in the same year. Paipai (www.paipai.com) is the second largest e-commerce platform, and Tom Eachnet the third.
During a two-week period in 2004, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found over 1,390 ivory items on major Chinese-language auction sites. Based on these findings, the CITES Management Authority of China (CNMA) called in 2005 for a ban on the trade in ivory via the Internet. Additionally, the Ministry of Public Security of China (MPS) urged the major auction sites to remove ivory items and raise awareness among their registered users.
However, in another two-week period in 2006, IFAW found 835 items of ivory for sale on the Internet. This investigation found many new names for the word “ivory” used by traders to evade monitoring and the law. Following this investigation, Taobao and eBay responded to government requests and decided to ban and remove all ivory products from their websites.
In 2007, a year-long online random check of the four major e-commerce sites was conducted for CITES Appendix-I listed and/or State Class-I protected species. Although all of the monitored websites have imposed a ban on ivory and a “no endangered species and their products” policy, a total of 1,973 wildlife products from over 30 species were found on these websites, 75 % of which were ivory products. Furthermore, many other endangered species were for sale on these websites. Wildlife items found to be illegally traded via the Internet were from over 30 locations, the majority of which were large cities and provinces such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Jiangsu Province. This geographical profile correlates with investigations made in the local markets located in those cities and provinces.
Many traders of illegal wildlife items are obviously aware that selling such items on the Internet is a violation of the law. As a result, they disguise the illegal items by using nicknames or incorrect spelling, or by advertizing the items as 'ersatz' or 'imitation' while certifying their authenticity in their detailed description. Sellers based in other countries were also responsible for posting advertisements for wildlife products on Chinese web auction sites. Finally, it was also found that wildlife products smuggled from overseas were sold on Chinese Web auction sites.
To further reduce illegal trade in wildlife via the Internet, CNMA and MPS co-organized a workshop on Control of Internet Wildlife Trade in January 2008. Thirty participants from all concerned government law enforcement and wildlife management agencies, four major websites, IFAW and TRAFFIC attended. Law enforcement actions were taken afterwards. All participants from Web auction websites contributed to the keyword pool the names/terms sellers used to evade inspection in an effort to enhance screening. Both Eachnet and Paipai removed all reported wildlife products. Finally, more than 80 % of wildlife items identified by IFAW were deleted from the Web auction sites.
Many cases related to illegal online wildlife trade have been handled by wildlife enforcement agencies. For example, in 2008 and 2009, the Shenyang Forest Police Bureau of China’s Liaoning province detected three wildlife cases and arrested four suspects involved in online trade in wildlife.
In addition to investments in efforts to eliminate illegal trade in wildlife products on the Internet, it is also crucial to educate online shoppers to not trade in endangered wildlife species. On 20 November 2008, in Beijing, Taobao and IFAW launched a month-long campaign to raise consumer awareness about illegal trade of wildlife on the Internet and to reject online trade in animals and their products. On Taobao, IFAW opened an e-store to collect information from Taobao users about wildlife crime. The event was endorsed by and counted on the participation of CNMA and the Forestry Police Agency. During this month, Taobao received more than 3,900 reports of illegal wildlife product sale on its website, an amount four times the number received in the month prior to the campaign. Taobao users and website visitors can also acquire knowledge of wildlife conservation, CITES and relevant laws and regulations by visiting IFAW’s online “store” and education webpage on Taobao. Moreover, as part of this collaboration, Taobao announced the ban of shark fin products on its website and asked its online traders to remove all fin products by 1 January 2009.
Similar to Taobao, Alibaba International, the largest B2B (business-to-business) e-commerce website in the world, also banned trade in shark fins in October 2009. In addition, Alibaba has enhanced its internal control of trade in wildlife products to meet international and national regulations. With IFAW’s support, 333 wildlife product advertisements and five registered traders from Canada, Cameroon and the United States have been removed from the Alibaba website, and many new keywords have been added to its control filter system.
As a result of the joint effort among government agencies, websites, NGOs and the public, illegal trade in wildlife on Chinese e-commerce websites has been greatly reduced. However, we have found that illegal trade in wildlife conducted on art and craft collection websites and specialized forums has increased. These websites and forums suffer from a lack of internal control and regulations, which creates blind spots in enforcement. Many traders who originally used the auction websites have moved their business to these uncontrolled websites and specialized forums. This new trend sets new challenges for enforcement agencies.
Given the scale of trade, the speed and geographic span of Web transactions and the anonymity of the Internet, the Internet is posing a huge challenge to governments and law enforcement agencies. It clearly continues to facilitate significant trade in wildlife worldwide without immediate and coordinated action from all key actors.
All Parties to the Convention need to evaluate or develop CITES implementing legislation and regulations sufficient to address the challenges of controlling trade in wildlife via the Internet. It is also necessary to establish a mechanism to coordinate, at the national level, the monitoring of Internet-related wildlife trade and the sharing of monitoring result with CITES Management and Enforcement Authorities. Enforcement Authoritiesneed to allocate sufficient resources to the investigation and targeting of illegal Internet-related trade in specimens of CITES-listed species and to participate in furthering international cooperation to better tackle illegal trade in wildlife on the Internet. Owners of auction websites also need to take responsibility for illegal trade in protected species occurring on their websites and to take measures to monitor, delete and report any suspicious items listed. They should also educate website users. Non-governmental organizations can help with monitoring and reporting illegal wildlife trade on the Internet and with raising public awareness. The public should report suspicious advertisements on the Internet and reject the purchase of illegal wildlife products.
Mr. Ziming WAN
Enforcement and Training Division
Endangered Species Ipm. & Exp. Administrative Office
State Forestry Administration
18 Hepingli East Street
Tel: +8610 84239004
Fax: +8610 84238894
E-mail: ziming_wan [at] 163.com, wan.ziming [at] gmail.com