Investigating the Internet Wildlife Trade

World – Official Newsletter of the Parties Issue 19


The Internet has revolutionized the way we exchange ideas, information and merchandise. Understandably, this pervasive and powerful technology has become the world’s largest marketplace, one that is always open for business. Unregulated, anonymous and unlimited, the Internet provides endless opportunities for criminal activity and transactions. Increasingly, it is the means by which the illicit trade in wildlife is conducted. The illegal wildlife trade is having a devastating effect on animals, ecosystems, and the communities that rely on them worldwide, making it one of the major wildlife conservation challenges of our generation.

Techniques for subverting the law or avoiding detection on the Internet are continuously evolving and becoming more sophisticated, causing overwhelming challenges to law enforcement authorities. Yet contemporary international law has fallen behind in its consideration of wildlife trade conducted via the Internet. Despite recognition by international law enforcement agencies, governments, non-governmental organizations and the general public of the challenges associated with Internet wildlife trade, some national legislation and enforcement schemes have proven insufficient in dealing with the problem.

Since 2004, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has investigated the Internet wildlife trade, and these studies have revealed high numbers of wildlife products exchanged on a daily basis. In 2004, IFAW uncovered a brisk ivory trade on the Internet in the United Kingdom. In a 2007 follow-up report, IFAW focused specifically on the ivory trade on eBay, and found 2,275 ivory items for sale on eight national eBay websites in a single week. As a result of this study and ongoing consultations with IFAW, eBay, Inc. announced a global ban on cross-border trade in ivory products in June 2007 for all eBay national sites.

In 2008, IFAW undertook the largest investigation into the wildlife trade on the Internet the organization has ever attempted. The results of the investigation were published in a report entitled Killing with Keystrokes: An Investigation of the Illegal Wildlife Trade on the World Wide Web (available at The purposes of this investigation, discussed below, were to understand the volume and geographic scope of the global Internet wildlife trade, to identify key Internet wildlife trade markets, to determine the species most affected by the trade, and to identify significant issues and trends related to the online trade in CITES-listed species. Specifically, IFAW asked the research question: “Is the Internet a significant conduit for the illegal wildlife trade?”


IFAW’s investigation was conducted as a two-phase, three-month survey carried out simultaneously in 11 countries – Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Mexico, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States. These countries were selected based on the prevalence of Internet use and cross-matched with IFAW’s capacity to perform the investigation using organizational or other in-country resources. Each of the countries chosen for this investigation is a Party to the CITES convention.

Phase I was a scoping exercise to determine the Web-based marketplaces that would be investigated and the specific search terms that would be used. Each investigator used common search engines such as and to locate websites in each country that could contain offers for trade in wildlife specimens. Websites that would be investigated during Phase II of the investigation in each country were then identified by further surveying more than 1,000 websites to determine which were offering significant numbers of live animals and animal specimens from species listed on the CITES Appendices.

All of the websites chosen for further investigation were readily accessible to the public. Although IFAW investigators also identified a number of password-protected, paid, and/or private websites that could also contain offers for trade in CITES-listed species, these were not included in Phase II of the investigation.

Keyword search terms were chosen based on the internationally accepted framework of CITES-listed species, specifically those that are listed on Appendix I. Although these species were the focus of this study, products from some Appendix-II species were also searched and recorded; other Appendix-II species that fell under the global keywords were recorded opportunistically.

The second phase of the investigation was conducted using a series of six one-week “snapshot” surveys from 12 May  to 29 June 2008, in each country. During these surveys, in-country investigators tracked advertisements for live animals and wildlife products protected by CITES on 183 websites around the globe. Investigators recorded a number of data points for each individual assessment including list price, shipping range, website policy, species, product type, keywords and final sale status.

An actual assessment of the legality of each product listing was beyond the scope of the investigation, so IFAW instead employed a three-tiered system of categorizing listings based on the information presented. Items were identified as “Likely Compliant” (listings offering some form of documentation or proof that they complied with domestic law and/or website policy), “Potential Violation” (advertisements that made a claim of compliance but failed to provide any supporting proof or documentation), or “Likely Violation” (advertisements containing no reference to compliance with domestic law or website policy).

Investigators used a conservative approach in assigning a violation category to a listing. In cases of uncertainty, listings were given the “benefit of the doubt” because the purpose was to determine the scope and scale of the overall Internet wildlife trade, not the specific number of illegal items online at any one point in time.


During the six-week “snapshot” investigations, IFAW investigators tracked 7,122 online listings offering wildlife and wildlife products for sale domestically and internationally from eight countries (data from Argentina, Colombia and Mexico were statistically insignificant and therefore not included in the global calculations).

Overall the results show a high volume of wildlife trade conducted via the Internet, with thousands of CITES-listed specimens offered for sale on the Internet every week. The United States was responsible for 70 % of the trade, while the countries with the next highest volume, China and the United Kingdom, accounted for nearly 8 % each.


Wildlife products represented 79.2 % of the total 7,122 listings, while the remaining 20.8 % (1,483 listings) were for live animals. 54 % of the total listings were categorized as “Potential Violation”; 34 % were “Likely Violations”; lastly, 7 % were considered “Likely Compliant”.

The data indicated that the online wildlife trade is dominated by two categories of Appendix I species: elephant products and live exotic birds. Together, these two categories make up 93.2 % of items monitored.

Elephant products comprised 73 % of the online offers tracked, totalling 5,223 listings. Of these, 93.77 % were listings for ivory. About 74 % of the ivory listings were assessed as “Potential Violation”, and 15 % were assessed as “Likely Violation”.
Trade in live exotic birds accounted for 1,416 listings or 19.9 %. The majority of these listings, 92 %, were categorized as “Likely Violation”; in a number of cases sellers admitted outright their birds were illegal. If indeed illegal, this may indicate major conservation and animal welfare concerns associated with the live bird trade that should be further investigated.

Investigators also found that the Internet was a conduit for a variety of other categories of protected wildlife, including primates, big cats, reptiles, sharks, rhinoceros, sturgeon and others. However, trade in these animals made up only 6.8 % of the total trade investigated.

Because very few sites confirm sales and publish the final sale price of an item, estimating an accurate overall monetary value of the Internet trade in wildlife was a substantial challenge. Investigators recorded two monetary data points for each listing: advertised price and final sale price. IFAW’s calculation of the total value of trade during the 6 weeks of this investigation was conservative, totalling USD 3,871,201 in advertisements and USD 457,341 in final sales. The wide disparity between these figures has a specific source – without proof that money changed hands it is impossible to state that a sale actually occurred. Throughout this investigation, a final sale was only recorded if it could be verified, a feature only available on eBay and its subsidiaries. Therefore, a large amount of actual commerce is likely not to be represented in the final sale total tally.

Finally, although this investigation did not focus on Appendix-II species, Appendix-II specimens were recorded opportunistically. Investigators in several countries, including Australia, China and the United Kingdom, found over 958 advertised offers. Though these were not researched more thoroughly, they were instructive of what Appendix-II species are being traded and indicate that more research needs to be done in this area. The Appendix-II species most commonly found were: sharks, bears, lions, pangolins, reptiles, birds and primates.


The Internet clearly continues to facilitate significant trade in wildlife, and the unique characteristics of the global Internet marketplace make it almost impossible to determine whether the trade is occurring in compliance with or in contravention of international and domestic law governing trade in CITES-listed species. For this reason, eBay, Inc. announced on 19 October  2008 that it was banning all trade in ivory products on its websites worldwide effective 1 January 2009. IFAW congratulates eBay, Inc. for its decision, which was in the best spirit of environmental responsibility and precautionary conservation, a guiding principle of CITES.

The rules, regulations and laws governing the trade in endangered species are complex, diverse and differ from country to country. This jumble of laws and policies, ranging from local to international, are not unified and are not simple. Furthermore, Web-based marketplace rules are not cohesive or necessarily reflective of these laws and policies. The end result is a virtually unregulated trade that could undermine the fundamental guidelines and mechanisms for trade regulation outlined in the Convention.

Through its investigations, IFAW has come to the conclusion that the only way to fully address the problem of illegal wildlife trade on the Internet is for Parties and Web-based marketplaces to work together to prohibit the online trade in Appendix-I species. CITES Parties can take important steps to address this problem through domestic wildlife trade legislation and policies, if given the proper guidance by the Convention of the Parties. These steps include:

  1. Recognizing that trade via the Internet is inherently international;
  2. Ensuring that the online facilitation of the illegal trade in wildlife is treated as a contravention of CITES-implementing legislation and penalized accordingly;
  3. Ensuring that potential purchasers of CITES-listed species for sale online have reasonable access to information regarding origin, legal status and documentation, if required, for the specimens offered in international commerce via the Internet; and
  4. Resolving jurisdictional issues that would arise if an individual who is physically located within the geographic boundaries of one Party offers into Internet commerce or purchases a CITES-listed specimen in violation of the CITES-implementing legislation of another party.

Paul Todd
Program Manager
International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 1220
Washington, DC 20017
United States of America
[email protected]

Jennifer Place
Policy Analyst
International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 1220
Washington, DC 20017
[email protected]