Wildlife trade shifting from e-commerce to social media

Total number of wildlife listings on Chinese e-commerce sites. (Credit TRAFFIC)

In a previous post several months ago, I discussed how e-commerce sites are a major conduit for the online trade of illegal wildlife products. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has been the foremost organization to monitor the online sale of wildlife products, and their 2014 report “Wanted–Dead or Alive” uncovered $11 million worth of animal products—33,000 listings on 280 sites across 16 countries. A new TRAFFIC report, however, suggests that the wildlife trade is waning on traditional e-commerce platforms. This trend is especially pronounced with ivory products and in China. Here is what TRAFFIC credits for this encouraging development:

[A]fter more than two years of cooperation with e-commerce platform and website managers and enforcement authorities, the total number of illegal wildlife products advertisements (TWPA) and the monthly number of new wildlife products advertisements (NWPA) have remained stable for the past two years. This period of stability followed a public declaration made by 15 of the leading e-commerce sites in China stating they had a zero-tolerance policy towards their services being used to conduct illegal wildlife trading. Feedback from regular monitoring by TRAFFIC has resulted in website managers routinely removing offending adverts and blocking code words used to describe illegal products, and messaging to encourage such action has taken place through a series of targeted training workshops.

As someone who cares about the illegal wildlife trade, and also as an employee of a major e-commerce site, I am encouraged by the progress this industry has made to push these products from their platforms. The TRAFFIC report wasn’t all good news, though. The decline in wildlife products on traditional e-commerce platforms has corresponded with increased proliferation of those products on social media. In a month of monitoring a single social network (WeChat), TRAFFIC uncovered ads for more than 100 ivory tusks, 80 rhino horns, and thousands of other ivory products.

Here’s how these transactions occur on social media: A dealer posts photos and information about illegal wildlife products for sale to their social network or targeted groups wherein they expect to find prospective buyers. Some dealers recruit “agents” to share their posts to expand their reach on social media. If an agent finds a buyer within their own social network, they purchase the product from the original dealer and then re-sell it for profit to their contact.

A wildlife trafficker was arrested in Indonesia just last month for advertising and selling endangered species through Facebook and Blackberry Messenger.  Live species sold included orangutans, golden cats, Javan gibbons, and a variety of other wildlife products like tiger skins and fangs were also sold.

The uptick in sales via social media poses unique enforcement challenges. Social media sites, for instance, may not be as well equipped to police their fora for offending ads as e-commerce sites have. Social media sites have yet to establish the partnerships and acquire the expertise on this issue that many e-commerce sites have through their enforcement efforts. Josh Butler, reporting on the TRAFFIC report for the UN’s Inter Press Service, identified two other opportunities:

For one, audiences on social media can be limited greatly, to only those buyers that the dealer or merchant trusts; for another, code words for products are often used, and can be regularly altered, making it difficult for enforcement agencies to keep up.

Despite these challenges, conservationist groups also see social media as a valuable tool for outreach and awareness.  In India, TRAFFIC, WWF-India and India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau worked together on a digital media campaign (“Preserving the Future: Stop Illegal Wildlife Trade”) to raise awareness about the illegal trade in non-charismatic species like pangolins, owls and mongooses. The campaign ended this month, and these organizations claim that 1.4 million people on Facebook, Twitter and Google were exposed to their campaign messages. And in China, the Wildlife Conservation Society leveraged social media to reach a total of 235 million people in their “96 Elephants” campaign, in addition to getting 8,000 signatures for the “Bring No Ivory Home” pledge.

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