Illegal wildlife trade is gaining ground on the Internet, as evidenced by the booming popularity of the Internet and the burgeoning number of websites where wildlife goods are offered, often with clearly suspect origins. A wide range of species are available and openly advertised on popular websites around the world, including those derived from ‘high profile’ animal species, such as elephants, rhinoceroses, the tiger and marine turtles (Williamson, 2004; IFAW 2005; Wu, 2007; IFAW 2008). While wildlife law enforcement has made gains in policing physical markets for wildlife, the Internet presents a set of new challenges via ‘virtual’ markets that have yet to be properly regulated. Concerted effort is needed by CITES Parties, international agencies and the private sector to combat the danger that expanding online availability poses to wild populations of endangered animal and plant species.
By September 2009, over 1.73 billion people globally – around a quarter of the world population – had access to the Internet, an increase of almost 380 % between 2000 and 2009 (Anon., 2009a). The Internet provides quick and extensive information to a vast and interconnected audience, with much of the exchange focused on commerce. Internet markets are flourishing, with eBay the most popular auction website visited by users worldwide (Anon., 2009b). In addition to auction websites, chat rooms on thematic websites also allow traders to advertise, communicate with customers and make deals for almost any products, including those derived from wild animals and plants.
Species are sold as live or whole, as well as products derived from them. Many of the rhinoceros horn and tiger products (apart from tiger ‘wine’) offered on Chinese-language auction websites are advertised as historical artefacts, with some sellers claiming to have documentation showing their provenance. However, the veracity of such documents is difficult to confirm. Many products derived from wild species are sourced from a wide geographical area, and these are not necessarily the countries where the website domains are hosted. For example, a TRAFFIC investigation into the use of Internet auction websites in the illegal ivory trade in the United States found some of the sites based in China (Williamson, 2004). Furthermore, from July 2005 to February 2006, TRAFFIC found 4,291 unique advertisements offered by almost 2,000 sellers for CITES-listed species on the Chinese-language Internet, including auction websites and chat rooms in the thematic websites (Wu, 2007). Most of the sellers were individuals and not professional wildlife traders, which poses questions about their eligibility to sell CITES Appendix-I species within national borders. It also indicates that Internet trade in wildlife might not yet be dominated by organized criminals.
Legal trade in specimens of CITES-listed species, including products, is possible, particularly for those listed in Appendix II, and illegality of trade typically cannot be determined simply from advertised availability on the Internet. For example, pre-Convention and captive-bred specimens, such as Asian arowanas (Scleropages formosus) marked by microchip transponders, may be legally traded international as well as domestically. However, given the nature of restrictions on trade in CITES-listed species, it is likely that many, if not most, of the CITES-listed species offered on Chinese-language websites are illegal. This is particularly clear for CITES Appendix-I species. Other examples were auctions of veiled chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus) in China (Wu, 2007) and 50 Kaiser’s Spotted Newts (Neurergus kaiseri, endemic to the Islamic Republic of Iran with a total population of fewer than 1,000 individuals) in Canada (E. Cooper, pers. comm., December 2009), where the CITES trade data from the UNEP-WCMC database, and the responses from the source country (the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the case of N. kaiseri), showed that the legality of this trade or actual availability of live specimens was clearly questionable. Like any other venue for trade, the Internet can facilitate illegal activities; however, unlike other marketplaces, trade on the Internet does not necessarily mean it is actually available, authentic or illegal.
The Internet is a platform with an ever-expanding number of users, and Internet protocols like email, World Wide Web, discussion groups, telephony and others have been created to conduct communication, and this facilitates the exchange of wildlife trade information (Anon. 2009c). The methods of monitoring, regulation of legal and the combating of illegal wildlife trade are different from those employed to deal with trade in ‘bricks-and-mortar’ marketplaces, and there are different challenges in terms of tools and capacity. The authenticity of products can not be tested because they exist in ‘virtual’ space and are not physically present. At the CITES e-commerce workshop in Vancouver, Canada, in February 2009, some CITES Parties explained that it was difficult to monitor, quantify and prosecute e-commerce offences (particularly for Internet providers located beyond national borders) (Anon. 2009d). Parties also reported that sellers on the Internet are good at adapting strategies to evade detection, and some advertisements are hoaxes and fraudulent sales. According to a report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) of the United States, ‘non-delivery’ and ‘auction fraud’ have been the top two reported cybercrimes since 2005 (Anon. 2008).
To deal with these challenges, wildlife law enforcement authorities may need to develop specific strategies to police virtual markets, such as cybercrime units and special monitoring programmes. New regulations may be required to account for unique difficulties, such as the obligation to demonstrate the legal origin of CITES Appendix-I specimens and provide accurate information for advertised specimens. In addition, improved communication among agencies uncovering evidence of criminal actions and cooperation with source countries in their investigation will increase the success of prosecutions in addressing illegal trade in source nations and Internet provider countries.
TRAFFIC has developed a methodology for monitoring Internet trade, to gather data consistently and make sure it is comparable across regions (Wu, 2007). This method has been designed to ensure that data collection effort is also measured, as this helps guide an indication of the scale and significance of the findings. Internet studies are performed in nearly all wildlife trade research that TRAFFIC conducts, looking at availability on the Web and cross-verifying it with other sources and field research.
Research findings and information on suspected illegal wildlife trade can be passed on to relevant wildlife enforcement authorities for further investigation as well as to e-commerce websites to aid them in improving their strategies to keep any wildlife trade legal. TRAFFIC has provided information to relevant authorities in China (including Hong Kong SAR), Canada and the European Union regarding suspect advertisements found on auction websites. An investigation in Hong Kong SAR concerning tiger skin products offered for sale on an auction website resulted in a conviction in February 2006 and a fine of HKD 15,000 (USD 1,913).
TRAFFIC has also worked with Web-based business sites to reduce the possibility of illegal wildlife trade taking place on the Internet. In 2004, TRAFFIC advised eBay to stop all trade in ivory on their websites because of the difficulties in distinguishing legal from fraudulent ivory for sale (Williamson, 2004). In June 2007, eBay announced a ban on the international trade of elephant ivory on all its sites worldwide. In 2008, TRAFFIC worked with the Chinese CITES Management Authority to provide information and experiences to relevant authorities and website managers in China in order to deter illegal trade in CITES-listed species on the Internet. Following the workshop, participating auction websites contacted TRAFFIC for more assistance in improving the capacity of their managers in dealing with this issue – clear evidence that responsible websites and authorities view seriously the extension of illegal wildlife markets onto the Internet.
Companies providing auction websites seem generally to be aware of wildlife trade regulations. For example, eBay has a policy to prohibit the trade in live specimens and ivory products globally. On the other hand, 27 out of 35 thematic websites that were monitored in TRAFFIC’s research into the Chinese-language Internet were engaged in the live pet trade, and over 50 % of the advertised species were listed in the CITES Appendices. Although the Internet can facilitate illegal activities, the Internet also facilitates opportunities and avenues for monitoring and responding to wildlife trade activities.
The Internet is an excellent vehicle for sharing information; however, consumers are not receiving appropriate information with regard to compliance with wildlife trade regulations. Websites and businesses hosting wildlife trade e-commerce and associated information exchanges should make greater efforts to keep such trade legal, provide information on wildlife trade regulation in a friendly way to potential Internet shoppers, and provide an easy way for shoppers to report suspected illegal or fraudulent trade to servers and authorities. For example, in the United States, eBay provides to its customers links to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) website (Anon. 2008). Internet providers should also have a policy for advertisements that could be removed if they are found to be in breach of the law, whether national or international in jurisdiction.
Non-Governmental Organizations can also cooperate with Internet providers and wildlife enforcement authorities to heighten awareness among consumers and potential sellers about what is legal and illegal. NGOs can assist by disseminating information, publishing accurate and impartial updates on CITES-listed species trade, and conducting public awareness programmes.
Anon. (2008). IC3 2008 Internet Crime Report. Internet Crime Complaint Center, USA.
Anon. (2009a). Internet World Stats: www.Internetworldstats.com/stats.htm Viewed December 2009.
Anon (2009b). Ranking of Top 15 General Auction Sites. Viewed December 2009.
Anon. (2009c). Legal and Illegal Internet Trade in specimens of CITES-listed species. CITES e-commerce workshop. Vancouver, Canada 24-26 February 2009.
Anon. (2009d). E-commerce of specimens of CITES-listed species. The 58th CITES Standing Committee. CITES SC58 Doc.22. 6-10, July 2009.
IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) (2005). Caught in the Web: Wildlife trade on the Internet. London: IFAW.
IFAW (2008). Killing with Keystrokes: Wildlife trade on the Internet. London: IFAW.
Williamson, D.F. (2004). Tackling the Ivories: The Status of the US Trade in Elephant and Hippo Ivory. TRAFFIC North America. Washington, DC: World Wildlife Fund.
Wu, J. (2007). World Without Borders: Wildlife Trade on the Chinese-language Internet. TRAFFIC Bulletin, v.21(2):75-84.
Ms Joyce Wu
Programme Officer for TRAFFIC East Asia
P.O. Box 7-476, Taiwan, Province of China
Tel.: 886 2 2362 9787
Fax: 886 2 2362 9799
Email: ycjoycew [at] ms57.hinet.net