When you think of wildlife trafficking, it's easy to imagine back room deals or secret rendezvous. That may have been the case even a decade ago, but today searches on eBay and other sites can turn up all sorts of illegal animal products from elephant ivory to rare reptiles. And criminals are becoming more sophisticated, using web tools like sites that can't be reached through search engines or require software to access or spreading communications among several computers that allow them to operate in secrecy. All this has lead to a flourishing wildlife trade on the internet and endangered species are feeling the impact.
"The internet has without a doubt facilitated the huge expansion of illegal international wildlife trading over the last decade," said Crawford Allan, of the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic to The Guardian. "Rare jewels of the forest can now be caught, boxed and shipped almost overnight just like any other express commodity."
Many of the trades are handled in plain sight in chat rooms and on auction sites, but just using coded words, like "ox bone" for elephant ivory. Although the site has banned the sale of ivory, according to The Guardian, a search on eBay's UK site in August for "ox bone" yielded over 5,000 results. Acronyms and misspellings are also used to cover up what the product really is or products are described as historical artifacts, when they're really the product of poaching. Live animals captured illegally are often described as being bred in captivity.
The Guardian reports, "It is a wide-ranging business. Elephant ivory is used for ornaments, and parts of tigers and rhinos are used in traditional medicine or ground down and added to wine. Pelts from leopards and polar bears fetch high sums, while rare reptiles, birds and fish are bought as pets.
There are no precise figures on the scale of the problem. Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based lobby group, last year estimated the global illegal wildlife trade to be worth at least £5bn. Various reporting systems and investigations suggest commercial exploitation of many at risk species has reached – or is close to – all-time high."
For some endangered species, it's believed that internet trading has become the number one threat to their survival.
Later this year the International Fund for Animal Welfare will publish a full report on the internet tools traffickers are using like mailing list servers, password-protected sites and encryption.
One silver lining in all this is that although the web has expanded illegal wildlife trading, it has also expanded authorities' ability to track them.
"It works both ways," said Ernie Cooper, also of Traffic. "The internet has made it easier for traders, but it has also helped us research and monitor their activities."