Wildlife Trade on the Internet
Illegal wildlife trade is gaining ground on the Internet,
as evidenced by the booming popularity of the Internet and
the burgeoning number of websites where wildlife goods are
offered, often with clearly suspect origins. A wide range of
species are available and openly advertised on popular websites
around the world, including those derived from ‘high
profile’ animal species, such as elephants, rhinoceroses,
the tiger and marine turtles (Williamson, 2004; IFAW 2005;
Wu, 2007; IFAW 2008). While wildlife law enforcement has made
gains in policing physical markets for wildlife, the Internet
presents a set of new challenges via ‘virtual’ markets
that have yet to be properly regulated. Concerted effort is
needed by CITES Parties, international agencies and the private
sector to combat the danger that expanding online availability
poses to wild populations of endangered animal and plant species.
By September 2009, over 1.73 billion people globally – around
a quarter of the world population – had access to the
Internet, an increase of almost 380 % between 2000 and
2009 (Anon., 2009a). The Internet provides quick and extensive
information to a vast and interconnected audience, with much
of the exchange focused on commerce. Internet markets are flourishing,
with eBay the most popular auction website visited by users
worldwide (Anon., 2009b). In addition to auction websites,
chat rooms on thematic websites also allow traders to advertise,
communicate with customers and make deals for almost any products,
including those derived from wild animals and plants.
Species are sold as live or whole, as well as products derived
from them. Many of the rhinoceros horn and tiger products (apart
from tiger ‘wine’) offered on Chinese-language
auction websites are advertised as historical artefacts, with
some sellers claiming to have documentation showing their provenance.
However, the veracity of such documents is difficult to confirm.
Many products derived from wild species are sourced from a
wide geographical area, and these are not necessarily the countries
where the website domains are hosted. For example, a TRAFFIC
investigation into the use of Internet auction websites in
the illegal ivory trade in the United States found some of
the sites based in China (Williamson, 2004). Furthermore, from
July 2005 to February 2006, TRAFFIC found 4,291 unique
advertisements offered by almost 2,000 sellers for CITES-listed
species on the Chinese-language Internet, including auction
websites and chat rooms in the thematic websites (Wu, 2007).
Most of the sellers were individuals and not professional wildlife
traders, which poses questions about their eligibility to sell
CITES Appendix-I species within national borders. It also indicates
that Internet trade in wildlife might not yet be dominated
by organized criminals.
Legal trade in specimens of CITES-listed species, including
products, is possible, particularly for those listed in Appendix II,
and illegality of trade typically cannot be determined simply
from advertised availability on the Internet. For example,
pre-Convention and captive-bred specimens, such as Asian arowanas
(Scleropages formosus) marked by microchip transponders,
may be legally traded international as well as domestically.
However, given the nature of restrictions on trade in CITES-listed
species, it is likely that many, if not most, of the CITES-listed
species offered on Chinese-language websites are illegal. This
is particularly clear for CITES Appendix-I species. Other examples
were auctions of veiled chameleons (Chamaeleo calyptratus)
in China (Wu, 2007) and 50 Kaiser’s Spotted Newts
(Neurergus kaiseri, endemic to the Islamic Republic
of Iran with a total population of fewer than 1,000 individuals)
in Canada (E. Cooper, pers. comm., December 2009), where
the CITES trade data from the UNEP-WCMC database, and the responses
from the source country (the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the
case of N. kaiseri), showed that the legality
of this trade or actual availability of live specimens was
clearly questionable. Like any other venue for trade, the Internet
can facilitate illegal activities; however, unlike other marketplaces,
trade on the Internet does not necessarily mean it is actually
available, authentic or illegal.
The Internet is a platform with an ever-expanding number of
users, and Internet protocols like email, World Wide Web, discussion
groups, telephony and others have been created to conduct communication,
and this facilitates the exchange of wildlife trade information
(Anon. 2009c). The methods of monitoring, regulation of legal
and the combating of illegal wildlife trade are different from
those employed to deal with trade in ‘bricks-and-mortar’ marketplaces,
and there are different challenges in terms of tools and capacity.
The authenticity of products can not be tested because they
exist in ‘virtual’ space and are not physically
present. At the CITES e-commerce workshop in Vancouver, Canada,
in February 2009, some CITES Parties explained that it was
difficult to monitor, quantify and prosecute e-commerce offences
(particularly for Internet providers located beyond national
borders) (Anon. 2009d). Parties also reported that sellers
on the Internet are good at adapting strategies to evade detection,
and some advertisements are hoaxes and fraudulent sales. According
to a report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)
of the United States, ‘non-delivery’ and ‘auction
fraud’ have been the top two reported cybercrimes since
2005 (Anon. 2008).
To deal with these challenges, wildlife law enforcement authorities
may need to develop specific strategies to police virtual markets,
such as cybercrime units and special monitoring programmes.
New regulations may be required to account for unique difficulties,
such as the obligation to demonstrate the legal origin of CITES
Appendix-I specimens and provide accurate information for advertised
specimens. In addition, improved communication among agencies
uncovering evidence of criminal actions and cooperation with
source countries in their investigation will increase the success
of prosecutions in addressing illegal trade in source nations
and Internet provider countries.
TRAFFIC has developed a methodology for monitoring Internet
trade, to gather data consistently and make sure it is comparable
across regions (Wu, 2007). This method has been designed to
ensure that data collection effort is also measured, as this
helps guide an indication of the scale and significance of
the findings. Internet studies are performed in nearly all
wildlife trade research that TRAFFIC conducts, looking at availability
on the Web and cross-verifying it with other sources and field
Research findings and information on suspected illegal wildlife
trade can be passed on to relevant wildlife enforcement authorities
for further investigation as well as to e-commerce websites
to aid them in improving their strategies to keep any wildlife
trade legal. TRAFFIC has provided information to relevant authorities
in China (including Hong Kong SAR), Canada and the European
Union regarding suspect advertisements found on auction websites.
An investigation in Hong Kong SAR concerning tiger skin products
offered for sale on an auction website resulted in a conviction
in February 2006 and a fine of HKD 15,000 (USD 1,913).
TRAFFIC has also worked with Web-based business sites to reduce
the possibility of illegal wildlife trade taking place on the
Internet. In 2004, TRAFFIC advised eBay to stop all trade in
ivory on their websites because of the difficulties in distinguishing
legal from fraudulent ivory for sale (Williamson, 2004). In
June 2007, eBay announced a ban on the international trade
of elephant ivory on all its sites worldwide. In 2008, TRAFFIC
worked with the Chinese CITES Management Authority to provide
information and experiences to relevant authorities and website
managers in China in order to deter illegal trade in CITES-listed
species on the Internet. Following the workshop, participating
auction websites contacted TRAFFIC for more assistance in improving
the capacity of their managers in dealing with this issue – clear
evidence that responsible websites and authorities view seriously
the extension of illegal wildlife markets onto the Internet.
Companies providing auction websites seem generally to be
aware of wildlife trade regulations. For example, eBay has
a policy to prohibit the trade in live specimens and ivory
products globally. On the other hand, 27 out of 35 thematic
websites that were monitored in TRAFFIC’s research into
the Chinese-language Internet were engaged in the live pet
trade, and over 50 % of the advertised species were listed
in the CITES Appendices. Although the Internet can facilitate
illegal activities, the Internet also facilitates opportunities
and avenues for monitoring and responding to wildlife trade
The Internet is an excellent vehicle for sharing information;
however, consumers are not receiving appropriate information
with regard to compliance with wildlife trade regulations.
Websites and businesses hosting wildlife trade e-commerce and
associated information exchanges should make greater efforts
to keep such trade legal, provide information on wildlife trade
regulation in a friendly way to potential Internet shoppers,
and provide an easy way for shoppers to report suspected illegal
or fraudulent trade to servers and authorities. For example,
in the United States, eBay provides to its customers links
to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) website (Anon.
2008). Internet providers should also have a policy for advertisements
that could be removed if they are found to be in breach of
the law, whether national or international in jurisdiction.
Non-Governmental Organizations can also cooperate with Internet
providers and wildlife enforcement authorities to heighten
awareness among consumers and potential sellers about what
is legal and illegal. NGOs can assist by disseminating information,
publishing accurate and impartial updates on CITES-listed species
trade, and conducting public awareness programmes.
Anon. (2008). IC3 2008 Internet Crime Report. Internet Crime
Complaint Center, USA.
Anon. (2009a). Internet World Stats: www.Internetworldstats.com/stats.htm Viewed
Anon (2009b). Ranking of Top 15 General Auction Sites. Viewed
Anon. (2009c). Legal and Illegal Internet Trade in specimens
of CITES-listed species. CITES e-commerce workshop. Vancouver,
Canada 24-26 February 2009.
Anon. (2009d). E-commerce of specimens of CITES-listed species.
The 58th CITES Standing Committee. CITES SC58 Doc.22. 6-10,
IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) (2005). Caught
in the Web: Wildlife trade on the Internet. London: IFAW.
IFAW (2008). Killing with Keystrokes: Wildlife trade on the
Internet. London: IFAW.
Williamson, D.F. (2004). Tackling the Ivories: The Status
of the US Trade in Elephant and Hippo Ivory. TRAFFIC North
America. Washington, DC: World Wildlife Fund.
Wu, J. (2007). World Without Borders: Wildlife Trade on the
Chinese-language Internet. TRAFFIC Bulletin, v.21(2):75-84.
Ms Joyce Wu
Programme Officer for TRAFFIC East Asia
P.O. Box 7-476, Taiwan, Province of China
Tel.: 886 2 2362 9787
Fax: 886 2 2362 9799