In wildlife traffickers, the internet finds a cancel target everyone agrees on

  • The Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online has removed more than 11 million posts linked to the wildlife trade on platforms ranging from Facebook to eBay to Alibaba since it was established in 2018.
  • But as more tech companies join the cause, and algorithms to weed out trafficking keywords grow more sophisticated, traffickers are becoming savvier and evolving new ways to keep operating in the internet’s vast gray zone.
  • With the proliferation of online platforms, and the increasing shift of commerce online since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, coalition supporters are emphasizing the industry-led approach as the most effective way to clamp down.
  • However, law enforcement is still lacking because of the jurisdictional challenges when it comes to fighting online crime; although there have been some successful convictions, proponents say private sector collaboration is necessary to navigate the vastness of the internet.

It was 2008, and Danielle Kessler was sitting in front of her computer, shocked by what she was seeing on the internet: a live rhino for sale.

The internet and social media weren’t nearly as sophisticated or scrutinized as they are today. Kessler saw endless footstools made from severed elephant feet, along with ivory items for sale. For her, this was an opportunity to start working with online companies to remove these postings from their platforms.

The problem with the online wildlife trade is that “it covers so many species, so many different products, so many different platforms,” says Kessler, who is today the U.S. director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Key figures from the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online’s 2021 progress report. IFAW, WWF and wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC launched the coalition in 2018. Since then, it has blocked or removed more than 11.6 million posts and ads. Image courtesy of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.

The wildlife trade is a threat to global biodiversity, and the internet has only exacerbated the challenge. As conversations about internet regulations and online crimes emerge, IFAW, WWF and wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC responded by launching the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online in 2018. Online companies that pledged to be a part of the coalition monitor and remove ads for prohibited wildlife. In its latest progress report, the coalition shared its successes in getting the trade canceled.

Since 2018, more than 11.6 million ads were removed or blocked from online platforms.

“It’s not always a deliberate trafficker,” Kessler says. “It might just be somebody that inherited a piece of ivory from their grandmother, and they decided to put it on their eBay site. A lot of the work of the coalition too is user education and awareness.”

The coalition

Today, the coalition is made up of 47 companies that include Facebook, Google, Etsy, Microsoft, Poshmark and longtime partner eBay. TikTok also recently jumped on board in 2021. Other Chinese companies in the coalition include Tencent, Alibaba and Weibo.

Combined, these companies have 11 billion user accounts. Each platform addresses the issue in a way that’s specific to their users and ads, which is a part of the industry-led approach, Kessler says.

Since the 2020 progress report that was published 18 months prior, the coalition companies have removed 8.3 million listings. In just five months, Facebook and TRAFFIC removed nearly 2,000 Facebook groups linked to wildlife trafficking in the Philippines and Indonesia, two hotspots for the illegal trade.

Key figures from the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online’s 2021 progress report. IFAW, WWF and wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC launched the coalition in 2018. Since then, it has blocked or removed more than 11.6 million posts and ads. Image courtesy of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.

Although reports show the demand for elephant ivory is declining, a significant amount of the trade still takes place online. In a recent report by IFAW, which looked at a subset of online postings, 44% of the ads they found were for elephant ivory. They also found that nearly 20% were for live exotic pets.

Pangolins are also frequent victims of online wildlife trafficking. Their scales are used in traditional medicine and for leather goods, like purses, belts and boots. Sea turtle leather goods are also common. And sea turtles and birds are a big part of the exotic pet trade.

Although the wildlife trade is a global problem, it’s more prolific in some areas than others, and the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped. That’s why the coalition is trying to target platforms that serve places like the U.S. and China, Kessler says.

In China, there’s been a shift in the illegal wildlife trade from online marketplaces to social media, says Chenyue Ma, the program manager overseeing IFAW China’s wildlife crime prevention, Asian elephant protection and Beijing Raptor Rescue Center programs.

“It’s not just affecting elephants and rhinos overseas. It’s also affecting animals here,” Kessler says, adding that the U.S. is one of the biggest traders in wildlife, both legal and illegal.

She notes that when they started putting together their progress report earlier this year, they found a lot of black bear parts and products on the internet.

Assorted traditional medicine products and items from endangered species, including tigers, Asian moon bears, rhinos, Tibetan antelopes and elephant ivory. Image courtesy of IFAW.

An online game of whack-a-mole

If you eliminate wildlife trafficking on one platform, traffickers will just jump to another one, Kessler says. That’s why the coalition takes an industry-led approach.

Illegal online wildlife trade has a lot of similarities to other forms of trafficking that happen online, like human, drug and arms trafficking, Kessler says. One key difference is that there’s a vast gray area when it comes to the wildlife trade. The laws on what is legal to trade are complex and vary from country to country and even by state or city in the U.S.

Many government agencies don’t have the capacity or the resources to monitor all physical shipments that come in as well as everything happening online, Kessler says.

Protections also vary based on species. With the live animal trade, it can be hard to identify a species from a photo, if the correct photo is even used at all, she says. Wildlife experts, who serve as cyber spotters, help identify the correct species and what the protection status is. They type in keywords to see if they can spot illegal trade, then send over the results to the coalition members to get them removed. Those keywords are then fed into algorithms so they can be identified again.

Some companies use pop-up ads to deter purchases, so if a user searches for a keyword that might trigger the pop-up ad, like “ivory,” the user will see what protections and prohibitions are in place.

So far, it’s mostly ads, but some forums have elevated this to law enforcement, says Kessler.

A screenshot of an online ad on a Polish website that shows a critically endangered pancake tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri) for sale for about $220. Image courtesy of IFAW.

Cancel or conviction?

There are many jurisdictional challenges when it comes to prosecuting online crime, like knowing who and where the criminal is as well as differentiating between legal and illegal trade.

Through the Lacey Act, the U.S. can prosecute based on violations of foreign laws when there is a connection to the U.S. And there are examples of successful investigations and prosecutions. In December 2020, the Department of Justice extradited a Chinese citizen from Malaysia to the U.S. for allegedly financing a turtle-trafficking ring that smuggled 1,500 protected turtles out of the U.S.

And earlier this year, a Texas man was sentenced to nearly two years in prison for his role in an international smuggling ring of protected wildlife that used Facebook to connect suppliers and customers.

The internet is so vast and law enforcement does not have enough resources to follow up and investigate every advertisement, Kessler says, which is why private sector collaboration is so important.

Ongoing challenges

Kessler says she hopes to get more tech companies on board, and that they’ll be able to create more automated methods to find these posts and feed online algorithms with new keywords. For instance, IFAW and Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, created an artificial intelligence tool that identifies wildlife products online.

A male juvenile spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). In December 2020, a Chinese citizen was extradited from Malaysia to the U.S. for financing a turtle-trafficking ring. The operation sold five types of turtles, including spotted turtles. Image courtesy of IFAW.

But the biggest challenge for the coalition is to stay ahead of the ever-evolving keywords and identifying problematic posts. The traffickers are also becoming savvier about getting around regulations. They’re figuring out how to exploit loopholes and what to write in their posts to make sure they stay in “the gray area,” Kessler says.

And international cooperation on wildlife trafficking is not nearly enough, says Ma.

“In many cases, we only see arrest of traffickers, but [rarely] see international cooperation to apprehend behind-the-scenes leaders of the syndicates,” she says.

She adds that wildlife conservation should not be politicized, and that singling out China is not a solution. Online wildlife trafficking in other places like the U.S. and Japan doesn’t get as much attention, she says.

“The coming 10 years could be the last window period for countries to act together,” Ma says.

“If we continue to let political differences triumph our shared interest and destiny, we may lose the battle completely.”