Online monitoring of social media outlets and e-commerce websites by researchers from TRAFFIC and WWF between July and September 2019 found more than 100 suspicious posts relating to at least 93 birds and 94 reptiles in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The study—Stop Wildlife Cybercrime in the EU: Online trade in reptiles and birds in Belgium and the Netherlands—focused on 28 reptile species and 26 bird species plus 2 genera protected under the EU Wildlife Trade regulations whose trade was considered highly likely to be illegal, based on their levels of protection, rarity or past history in being trafficked. Belgium and the Netherlands are both regarded as hotspots for trade in birds and reptiles.
The researchers found 106 suspicious postings from 65 different sellers, a few of whom had public records of previous wildlife trafficking.
The most frequently encountered target bird species were Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus and Blue-throated Macaw Ara glaucogularis both native to Latin America. The top postings for reptiles included Williams’ Dwarf Gecko Lygodactylus williamsi, found only in a tiny range in Tanzania, and Chinese Crocodile Lizard Shinisaurus crocodilurus, from China and Viet Nam. All are considered at risk of extinction in the wild.
The posts were mainly found on social media (25%) and wildlife specialist websites (50%). Just over 20% of posts were found on more general classified ads sites.
Most posts failed to provide adequate information proving that the reptiles and birds for sale were from a legal origin, such as appropriate CITES paperwork or appropriate marking (e.g. closed rings on birds). The large majority of the online platforms surveyed did not have clear guidance for users regarding wildlife trade legislation nor a clear policy of steps being taken to curtail illegal wildlife trade from their platform.
A notable exception was Facebook, a member of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which brings together more than 30 of the leading online platforms worldwide as part of an industry-led commitment to curtail online wildlife trafficking.
How technology can help fight wildlife cybercrime
The study presents a general assessment of technological solutions, such as software, that can help with monitoring and detecting suspicious wildlife trade activities online without resorting to time-consuming, labour-intensive manual data collection. It concludes that the major challenge in adopting such approaches is not the development of new tools but in the refinement of existing ones and the gathering of critical datasets to achieve scalable, reliable, systematic and repeatable ways to detect wildlife cybercrime automatically.
Recommendations to authorities, online platforms and wildlife consumers
A set of recommendations emanate from the report, among which the need for policy makers to explore legislative improvements on the conditions under which protected wildlife can be sold, advertised and purchased online; the need for enforcement authorities in the EU member states to be provided with the adequate capacity (human resources, tools and training) to fight wildlife cybercrime effectively; the need for online platforms to adopt policies to actively combat the use of their platforms to sell illegal wildlife; and finally the need for wildlife consumers to stop purchasing illegal wildlife.
The report ispublished under the banner of the EU Wildlife Cybercrime Project, an EU-funded initiative aimed at disrupting and deterring criminal networks trafficking wildlife in, or via, the EU using the internet and parcel delivery services. The project is coordinated by WWF and implemented in partnership with IFAW, INTERPOL, Belgian Customs and TRAFFIC.