Caught in the Web
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Meg McIntire, Friends of Animals (FOA)
April 2015

Wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest contraband trade in the world, taking in an astounding $15 billion each year, and the toll this illegal trade is having on animals is even more staggering. According to a recent study, more than 50 percent of the world’s wildlife has disappeared since 1970 and the biggest threat faced by many species still alive today is the illegal wildlife trade.

Since the project started last year, it has received hundreds of tips and leaks involving a range of topics from around the world including tiger poaching in Sumatra, illegal logging in eastern Russia and Mexico, and the smuggling of wildlife products into the United States. The WildLeaks team evaluates all of the tips and turns them into actionable items that are then turned over to the proper authorities or media outlets so that a trafficking crime is exposed and ended.

Wildlife trafficking flourishes on the Internet, but now criminals are being brought down by the same technology that helped them gain a foothold.

wildlife trafficking
Image by Meg McIntire

In April of 2012, a government organization in China announced they had success with an undercover operation that resulted in 1,031 people prosecuted, 13 gangs infiltrated and 628 Websites shut down.
The crime? Your first guess might be drugs or perhaps guns.

But the victorious agents were actually part of China’s State Forestry Administration, which successfully brought down an illegal wildlife trafficking circle that resulted in more than 150,000 animals and animal products seized.

Wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest contraband trade in the world, taking in an astounding $15 billion each year, and the toll this illegal trade is having on animals is even more staggering. According to a recent study, more than 50 percent of the world’s wildlife has disappeared since 1970 and the biggest threat faced by many species still alive today is the illegal wildlife trade.

Rhinos and tigers are two prime examples of this tragic truth. According to statistics by the wildlife trade tracking nonprofit, TRAFFIC, there are only an estimated 3,200 tigers left in the wild, a population decline of almost 97 percent since the 1900s. Illegal rhino horn trade has also now reached the highest levels in 20 years, with more than 1,000 rhinos killed in South Africa in 2013.

What is most blamed for the cause of this uptick in wildlife slaughter? The Internet.

From feeding the demand for “specialty” pets to connecting buyers to rhino-horn tonic sellers, the Web has allowed wildlife trafficking to spike dramatically in the last decade. The Web is a double-edged sword, though, and the good news is it can also be a tool to help catch criminals and stop illegal trafficking in its tracks.

Time is running out for the world’s wildlife, however, and it is ultimately a race against the clock to see if we will be able to combat wildlife trafficking online at the same rate it is expanding.

So what needs to be done?

Ideally, governments need to ensure they have hard-hitting laws in place to specifically target wildlife cybercrimes and that they have enough manpower to successfully enforce the laws online.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many governmental agencies in the world that are fully dedicated to wildlife trafficking, so the responsibility in many cases falls to online businesses and Website-users to catch wildlife traffickers red-handed. And quite a few online marketplaces have stepped up to the plate.

One example is Alibaba.com, Asia’s largest e-commerce site, which has taken the lead in combating the illegal wildlife trade online. After learning that the site was being used by sellers to market ivory, animal skins and other products derived from endangered species, Alibaba.com signed a declaration stating it has a zero-tolerance policy for its services being used to aid the illegal wildlife trade.

The company then put into place an effective screening method where items sold were checked against protected species listed in the Wild Animal Protection Law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. So illegal items are identified, removed and the seller prosecuted. Similar declarations and screening methods have been implemented by sites like Etsy, eBay and Google Shopping once they realized their marketplaces were being used to aid the illegal wildlife trade.

When Websites fall short in monitoring their own stock for wildlife contraband, conscientious Web users can also play a role in fighting wildlife crime. Many social media sites, like Facebook and Instagram, allow users to report any ads or posts that look suspicious or are blatantly promoting criminal activity, like wildlife trafficking.

There is also another option for those looking to take action or speak out against the illegal wildlife trade. WildLeaks.org, similar to WikiLeaks, is the first online whistleblower platform dedicated to wildlife and forest crime. Given that wildlife trafficking is a lucrative and dangerous business, funding some of the world’s most insidious terrorist groups, WildLeaks creators correctly assumed the cover of anonymity might increase the chances of crimes being reported.

Since the project started last year, it has received hundreds of tips and leaks involving a range of topics from around the world including tiger poaching in Sumatra, illegal logging in eastern Russia and Mexico, and the smuggling of wildlife products into the United States. The WildLeaks team evaluates all of the tips and turns them into actionable items that are then turned over to the proper authorities or media outlets so that a trafficking crime is exposed and ended.

It’s obvious that wildlife trafficking criminals have found ways to utilize the Internet to their great advantage, reaching buyers around the world and increasing the scope and profits of their operation. It’s imperative for us to do the same and combat their efforts on every front available, from the plains of South Africa to the darkest corners of the Web.


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