Investigating the Internet Wildlife Trade
The Internet has revolutionized the way we exchange ideas,
information and merchandise. Understandably, this pervasive
and powerful technology has become the world’s largest
marketplace, one that is always open for business. Unregulated,
anonymous and unlimited, the Internet provides endless opportunities
for criminal activity and transactions. Increasingly, it is
the means by which the illicit trade in wildlife is conducted.
The illegal wildlife trade is having a devastating effect on
animals, ecosystems, and the communities that rely on them
worldwide, making it one of the major wildlife conservation
challenges of our generation.
Techniques for subverting the law or avoiding detection on
the Internet are continuously evolving and becoming more sophisticated,
causing overwhelming challenges to law enforcement authorities.
Yet contemporary international law has fallen behind in its
consideration of wildlife trade conducted via the Internet.
Despite recognition by international law enforcement agencies,
governments, non-governmental organizations and the general
public of the challenges associated with Internet wildlife
trade, some national legislation and enforcement schemes have
proven insufficient in dealing with the problem.
Since 2004, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
has investigated the Internet wildlife trade, and these studies
have revealed high numbers of wildlife products exchanged on
a daily basis. In 2004, IFAW uncovered a brisk ivory trade
on the Internet in the United Kingdom. In a 2007 follow-up
report, IFAW focused specifically on the ivory trade on eBay,
and found 2,275 ivory items for sale on eight national eBay
websites in a single week. As a result of this study and ongoing
consultations with IFAW, eBay, Inc. announced a global ban
on cross-border trade in ivory products in June 2007 for all
eBay national sites.
In 2008, IFAW undertook the largest investigation into the
wildlife trade on the Internet the organization has ever attempted.
The results of the investigation were published in a report
entitled Killing with Keystrokes: An Investigation of the
Illegal Wildlife Trade on the World Wide Web (available
at www.ifaw.org). The purposes
of this investigation, discussed below, were to understand
the volume and geographic scope of the global Internet wildlife
trade, to identify key Internet wildlife trade markets, to
determine the species most affected by the trade, and to identify
significant issues and trends related to the online trade in
CITES-listed species. Specifically, IFAW asked the research
question: “Is the Internet a significant conduit for
the illegal wildlife trade?”
IFAW’s investigation was conducted as a two-phase, three-month
survey carried out simultaneously in 11 countries – Argentina,
Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Mexico,
the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States.
These countries were selected based on the prevalence of Internet
use and cross-matched with IFAW’s capacity to perform
the investigation using organizational or other in-country
resources. Each of the countries chosen for this investigation
is a Party to the CITES convention.
Phase I was a scoping exercise to determine the Web-based
marketplaces that would be investigated and the specific search
terms that would be used. Each investigator used common search
engines such as Google.com and Yahoo.com to locate websites
in each country that could contain offers for trade in wildlife
specimens. Websites that would be investigated during Phase
II of the investigation in each country were then identified
by further surveying more than 1,000 websites to determine
which were offering significant numbers of live animals and
animal specimens from species listed on the CITES Appendices.
All of the websites chosen for further investigation were
readily accessible to the public. Although IFAW investigators
also identified a number of password-protected, paid, and/or
private websites that could also contain offers for trade in
CITES-listed species, these were not included in Phase II of
Keyword search terms were chosen based on the internationally
accepted framework of CITES-listed species, specifically those
that are listed on Appendix I. Although these species were
the focus of this study, products from some Appendix-II species
were also searched and recorded; other Appendix-II species
that fell under the global keywords were recorded opportunistically.
The second phase of the investigation was conducted using
a series of six one-week “snapshot” surveys from
12 May to 29 June 2008, in each country. During
these surveys, in-country investigators tracked advertisements
for live animals and wildlife products protected by CITES on
183 websites around the globe. Investigators recorded a number
of data points for each individual assessment including list
price, shipping range, website policy, species, product type,
keywords and final sale status.
An actual assessment of the legality of each product listing
was beyond the scope of the investigation, so IFAW instead
employed a three-tiered system of categorizing listings based
on the information presented. Items were identified as “Likely
Compliant” (listings offering some form of documentation
or proof that they complied with domestic law and/or website
policy), “Potential Violation” (advertisements
that made a claim of compliance but failed to provide any supporting
proof or documentation), or “Likely Violation” (advertisements
containing no reference to compliance with domestic law or
Investigators used a conservative approach in assigning a
violation category to a listing. In cases of uncertainty, listings
were given the “benefit of the doubt” because the
purpose was to determine the scope and scale of the overall
Internet wildlife trade, not the specific number of illegal
items online at any one point in time.
During the six-week “snapshot” investigations,
IFAW investigators tracked 7,122 online listings offering wildlife
and wildlife products for sale domestically and internationally
from eight countries (data from Argentina, Colombia and Mexico
were statistically insignificant and therefore not included
in the global calculations).
Overall the results show a high volume of wildlife trade conducted
via the Internet, with thousands of CITES-listed specimens
offered for sale on the Internet every week. The United States
was responsible for 70 % of the trade, while the countries
with the next highest volume, China and the United Kingdom,
accounted for nearly 8 % each.
Wildlife products represented 79.2 % of the total 7,122
listings, while the remaining 20.8 % (1,483 listings)
were for live animals. 54 % of the total listings were
categorized as “Potential Violation”; 34 %
were “Likely Violations”; lastly, 7 % were
considered “Likely Compliant”.
The data indicated that the online wildlife trade is dominated
by two categories of Appendix I species: elephant products
and live exotic birds. Together, these two categories make
up 93.2 % of items monitored.
products comprised 73 % of the online offers tracked,
totalling 5,223 listings. Of these, 93.77 % were
listings for ivory. About 74 % of the ivory listings were
assessed as “Potential Violation”, and 15 %
were assessed as “Likely Violation”.
Trade in live exotic birds accounted for 1,416 listings or
19.9 %. The majority of these listings, 92 %, were
categorized as “Likely Violation”; in a number
of cases sellers admitted outright their birds were illegal.
If indeed illegal, this may indicate major conservation and
animal welfare concerns associated with the live bird trade
that should be further investigated.
Investigators also found that the Internet was a conduit for
a variety of other categories of protected wildlife, including
primates, big cats, reptiles, sharks, rhinoceros, sturgeon
and others. However, trade in these animals made up only 6.8 %
of the total trade investigated.
very few sites confirm sales and publish the final sale price
of an item, estimating an accurate overall monetary value of
the Internet trade in wildlife was a substantial challenge.
Investigators recorded two monetary data points for each listing:
advertised price and final sale price. IFAW’s calculation
of the total value of trade during the 6 weeks of this investigation
was conservative, totalling USD 3,871,201 in advertisements
and USD 457,341 in final sales. The wide disparity between
these figures has a specific source – without proof that
money changed hands it is impossible to state that a sale actually
occurred. Throughout this investigation, a final sale was only
recorded if it could be verified, a feature only available
on eBay and its subsidiaries. Therefore, a large amount of
actual commerce is likely not to be represented in the final
sale total tally.
Finally, although this investigation did not focus on Appendix-II
species, Appendix-II specimens were recorded opportunistically.
Investigators in several countries, including Australia, China
and the United Kingdom, found over 958 advertised offers. Though
these were not researched more thoroughly, they were instructive
of what Appendix-II species are being traded and indicate that
more research needs to be done in this area. The Appendix-II
species most commonly found were: sharks, bears, lions, pangolins,
reptiles, birds and primates.
The Internet clearly continues to facilitate significant trade
in wildlife, and the unique characteristics of the global Internet
marketplace make it almost impossible to determine whether
the trade is occurring in compliance with or in contravention
of international and domestic law governing trade in CITES-listed
species. For this reason, eBay, Inc. announced on 19 October 2008
that it was banning all trade in ivory products on its websites
worldwide effective 1 January 2009. IFAW congratulates
eBay, Inc. for its decision, which was in the best spirit of
environmental responsibility and precautionary conservation,
a guiding principle of CITES.
The rules, regulations and laws governing the trade in endangered
species are complex, diverse and differ from country to country.
This jumble of laws and policies, ranging from local to international,
are not unified and are not simple. Furthermore, Web-based
marketplace rules are not cohesive or necessarily reflective
of these laws and policies. The end result is a virtually unregulated
trade that could undermine the fundamental guidelines and mechanisms
for trade regulation outlined in the Convention.
Through its investigations, IFAW has come to the conclusion
that the only way to fully address the problem of illegal wildlife
trade on the Internet is for Parties and Web-based marketplaces
to work together to prohibit the online trade in Appendix-I
species. CITES Parties can take important steps to address
this problem through domestic wildlife trade legislation and
policies, if given the proper guidance by the Convention of
the Parties. These steps include:
- Recognizing that trade via the Internet is inherently international;
- Ensuring that the online facilitation of the illegal trade
in wildlife is treated as a contravention of CITES-implementing
legislation and penalized accordingly;
- Ensuring that potential purchasers of CITES-listed species
for sale online have reasonable access to information regarding
origin, legal status and documentation, if required, for
the specimens offered in international commerce via the Internet;
- Resolving jurisdictional issues that would arise if an
individual who is physically located within the geographic
boundaries of one Party offers into Internet commerce or
purchases a CITES-listed specimen in violation of the CITES-implementing
legislation of another party.
International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 1220
Washington, DC 20017
United States of America
International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 1220
Washington, DC 20017