Poachers looking to cash in on illegal animal trade are increasingly turning to online markets, according to a study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
According to the advocacy group, IFAW, social media sites and other online forums are frequently employed by wildlife traders to find potential buyers. During a review of 280 websites in early 2014, IFAW found advertisements for over 33,000 illegal wildlife parts, valued at nearly $11 million. The vast majority of the items, 56 percent, were listed on Chinese websites. Ivory was the most frequently advertised item, making up 79 percent of all listed animal parts.
The nature of illegal online commerce poses some unique challenges for advocacy groups like IFAW and law enforcement agencies, due to the anonymity the internet provides. IFAW did not take action on all of the advertisements it encountered, but did report 13 percent of them to officials. However, enforcing the law online is difficult – much of the trade occurs on social media sites that are only accessible to members, making them more difficult to monitor. Buyers will also sometimes uses coded language, such as referring to ivory as “white plastic.”
Representatives of Chinese social media sites and search engines say they support ending the illegal ivory trade, but admit the difficulty in policing sites with user-generated content. Searching for ivory on Baidu, a popular Chinese search engine, prompts an advertisement from the company discouraging the purchase of ivory.
The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, protects the trade of several animals parts, products, and live specimens. China is a signatory to CITES and bans the sale of imported ivory, but permits its sale if it is produced from domestic sources. However, it’s very difficult to determine if ivory being sold is truly procured in China or illegally smuggled. CITES found more than 20,000 African elephants were killed in 2013, calling greater attention to the urgency of halting the sale of illegal ivory.