October 2014 - Alibaba Group signed a strategic Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC to address illegal wildlife trade online. In addition, nine leading online retailers in China agreed not to provide opportunities for illegal wildlife product trade on their websites.
Internet usage and wildlife trade
Internet usage is continuously increasing worldwide, providing an efficient way of communicating as well as facilitating new methods of business and trade. While increasing international opportunities, countries have to find new ways of controlling international illicit trade, while at the same time supporting economic growth: legal frameworks and regulations to monitor online trade are essential to ensure legitimacy of traded goods. Internet facilitates new communication methods between traffickers, retailers and buyers in the illegal wildlife trade by cutting out the middle man, offering easy order, buy and sell opportunities of wildlife products. Current national and international wildlife trade rules and legislation have difficulty dealing with this growing method of trafficking.
The internet is increasingly used for trade in illegal wildlife resources, not only because through the internet a wider clientele can be reached, but also because laws and authorities can be evaded more easily. Online advertisements on public websites are accessible from remote locations, while internet offers anonymity for the seller, providing quick and untraceable sales. IFAW Asia recognizes that inadequate legislation on online companies offers businesses to conduct these sales through the internet. Each country has its own laws to deal with wildlife trafficking and online trade and there is a need for more specific, worldwide legislation and wildlife trafficking laws and regulations focused on the usage of the internet for the trade in wildlife products and live animals.
A number of international organizations scrutinizing the wildlife trade have been demanding for bans on the sales of wildlife products through the internet. There is some progress in their fight against the illegal online wildlife trade: in 2008, eBay banned all cross‐border ivory trade from its websites, partly under pressure from international CITES agreements. International, worldwide internet trading companies and marketplaces are able to stop a significant amount of the illegal wildlife trade by imposing bans like these, however research shows that it is often not the international, but the domestic markets that drive wildlife poaching in Africa and Asia. What is needed is a comprehensive strategy in intergovernmental laws and agreements to deal with this relatively new, and growing aspect of illegal wildlife trafficking.
Focus on illegal wildlife trade through the internet is not new, but it has increased in the last decennium. In 2008 a workshop was held in China organized by the China CITES Management Authority and Internet Information Security Monitoring Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security. By then it had become clear that illegal ivory trading had become a major issue in China, and government officials as well as representatives of the main internet trading companies were eager to engage in training and collaboration.
In Asia monitoring systems have been implemented to monitor websites advertising the sale of species listed by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and there have been successes in removing such items from online auction sites. In addition some countries reported successful prosecutions of illegal online wildlife trade. Development of national codes of conduct for internet is encouraged, as well as increasing institutional and public awareness.
Current legislation and law enforcement mechanisms
Many websites dealing in wildlife products have only limited rules and regulations, and no connection to national or international wildlife trading laws. In addition to the wide variety of regulation implemented by different websites, countries also have different laws in place. National laws are not equipped to deal with wildlife trafficking in general, creating many loopholes and not specifically targeted at illegal online trade in wildlife. Implementing effective legislation requires close cooperation with internet companies, website providers, police forces and border control to ensure successful implementation of the laws.
Although a number of countries have existing laws to deal with illegal wildlife trafficking, traders ignore these rules: therefore corporate regulations and bans are an important aspect of the fight against illegal wildlife trade. Online marketplaces sporadically impose their own restrictions on the sales of wildlife and wildlife products, which are usually difficult to enforce; most marketplace and auction websites only require the seller to tick a box, verifying the item for sale is legal and complies with website policies. Documentation provided online is difficult to verify without the original. Some websites have regulations on international trade of wildlife products, however this is hard to enforce. Sellers can advertise their products in foreign countries, as internet protocol (IP) addresses are easily hidden. One of the more creative evasion methods is to use wrong spelling for wildlife products, fooling search engines of marketplaces.
The lack of uniform, comprehensive international laws and regulations facilitates illegal wildlife trade. Current national and international laws dealing with wildlife trade are not able to deal with internet trade. CITES, the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna is the bases for international legislation and global wildlife trade law, and has recognized the lack of comprehensive legislation to deal with internet illegal wildlife trade.
Online wildlife trade is an area which has to be dealt with internationally. International law enforcement organizations have structures in place to deal with illegal trafficking in contraband goods and with their training and mandates; they could be a welcome assistance to governments in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking on the internet. Coalition against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) for instance is an international coalition of governments and nongovernmental organizations, aiming to reduce the demand for wildlife and ‐products. A number of partners have joined CAWT in the fight against illegal trafficking.
To enforce legislation and conventions, there is a need for more enhanced cooperation with international policing organizations. Early 2006, Interpol appointed a fulltime desk‐officer to manage the wildlife crimes programme, as part of its Environmental Crime Committee. The Wildlife Crime Working Group coordinates information gathered by member countries and facilitates the information exchange with other member countries, as well as supporting domestic law enforcement. International crime prevention organizations, such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Asian Crime Prevention Foundation, have structures in place to analyze international trafficking of illegal products and could therefore be a strong partner in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking. This is even more important since wildlife traffickers often use the same routes and networks as drug smugglers or human traffickers, exchange of knowledge and information between organizations and governments is therefore essential.
Governments and law enforcement agencies need to develop new strategies in dealing with wildlife trafficking through the internet. National as well as international laws considering wildlife trade through the internet need to be better enforced. Policing online markets requires a whole different set of law enforcement and criminal justice tools than traditional wildlife trafficking. Policing and investigating capacity should be enhanced, through providing resources and training. Regulations regarding required paperwork and certificates must be strictly enforced, while interaction between countries of origin and destination must be enhanced.
More research is required to establish the scale of the problem, in particular on trends and high-risk regions. Online tools should be used for both law enforcement organizations as well as the general public to be able to register and monitor data such as worldwide seizures and illegal advertisements. With this information, authorities can design evidence based policies on the illegal trade in wildlife and identify priorities. Eventually it is the buyer that creates demand, therefore most importantly, awareness campaigns can make potential buyers aware of the legal consequences of illegal wildlife trade, but most importantly the threat wildlife trafficking poses to worldwide wildlife conservation.
Based on: Combating Illegal Wildlife Trafficking, Internet: A New Threat to the Conservation of Wildlife. Unpublished Paper, D Braam