Codewords drive Web poaching ads

Thursday October 25 2018

Fresh carcass of an elephant killed for its ivory at the Mugie Ranch in Laikipia, northern Kenya, on February 3, 2017.

Fresh carcass of an elephant killed for its ivory at the Mugie Ranch in Laikipia, northern Kenya, on February 3, 2017. PHOTO FILE | NATION 

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Law enforcement agencies are now tracking codewords — used by ivory sellers in Europe to advertise items for online sales — to aid the fight against illegal wildlife trade.

According to a study by the University of Kent in the UK, the Internet has become the focus of concern in controlling the illegal wildlife trade, with sales occurring over a variety of platforms including auction websites and social media.

Tracking codes is helping uncover the sale of ivory illegally poached in Africa by reducing the number of phrases to track.

Researchers Sara Alfino and Dr David Roberts from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent said further work is required to monitor sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Craigslist for terms used.

“These sites have different ways in which items are presented for sale and it is not known to what extent codewords are not only shared between languages, but also across these online sales platforms,” the researchers said.

The illegal wildlife trade is a lucrative environmental crime worth more than $23 billion per year, making it the fourth most valuable illicit transnational trade after the trafficking of narcotics, humans and counterfeit goods.


Ms Alfino and Dr Roberts examined 19 different codewords and phrases identified to represent ivory on sale on four eBay websites in Britain, Italy, France and Spain. Codeword usage was consistent in the four countries.

They found that despite eBay's ban on ivory sales, 183 items on sale by 113 sellers violated Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and European Union regulations.

The research was conducted on open publicly available eBay auction website across four linguistically different countries in the EU, which allows free trade between member states.

The eBay site was chosen because previous studies had shown continuing trade in elephant ivory.

Ms Alfino said despite the use of codes to hide sales and problems, about 80 per cent were grouped around six codewords across eBay sites monitored.

“This suggests sales of ivory online between traders is standardising around set codewords even when using different languages as globalisation and market forces affect their business like any other,” she said.

This could help narrow the parameters within which law enforcement agencies have to search for the sale of ivory items, and allow machine learning tools to be focused on key terms too, helping improve identification of illegal sales.

Correlations were highest between France, Italy and Spain potentially because of close linguistic relationships.

Of the 19 codewords associated with trade in elephant ivory, six comprised the majority of the items traded.

Six codewords accounted for 80 per cent of total number of elephant ivory items found on sale on websites.

A total of 15,152 advertisements resulted from a search leading to identification of 183 unique elephant ivory items.

“Of these, 84 were found in Britain, 55 in France, 44in Italy and 42 in Spain. These items were offered for sale by 113 unique sellers. Of 21 items outside the EU, 20 were sold in USA and one was in Israel,” said Dr Roberts.

There were differences between countries with a higher volume in Britain. The lower overall volume of ivory items found in France, Italy and Spain could be a result of sellers’ preferential use of alternative auction websites.

“Unlike other countries, there were a higher number of items being offered from outside the EU (mainly US) into Britain. France, Italy and Spain had high numbers of items for sale from other EU countries, notably from Germany,” said Dr Roberts.

He said if a “digital fingerprint” could be identified for the sale of ivory items or other wildlife trade items that spanned platforms, languages and countries, the global monitoring of wildlife trade could potentially be made easier.

Research shows that identifying illegal online trading in ivory is a challenge for law enforcement agencies but there are ways they can take advantage of market conditions forcing traders to standardise codewords to try and find buyers for their goods.