Transnational criminal networks engaged in illegal wildlife trade have increasingly shifted the multibillion-dollar business to online platforms, including social media.
Physical markets have come under increased pressure from law enforcement agencies across Africa and Asia.
Africa is the main source for the illegal trophies, largely from elephants, rhinos, pangolins and tigers, while Asia is the main market.
However, few governments in both the source countries and the target markets have the capacity to detect and disrupt the business, and even fewer have the necessary laws to combat it, say international conservation and law enforcement agencies.
The result, officials of the bodies among them Interpol say, is that more wildlife and wildlife trophies are being trafficked from Africa to Asia each year, endangering the threatened species, in a trade that is becoming increasingly hard to detect.
“The Internet has provided traffickers and traders with greater visibility, enabled them to reach a larger pool of consumers of illegal wildlife products and increased opportunities for privacy,” said Simone Haysom, senior crime analyst of the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
The increased use of the Internet facilitates easier and faster exchange of information between middlemen, retailers and consumers, she said.
“It may all start with a simple photo of an adorable animal posted on a Facebook page, but this seemingly innocent post will bring together people with common interests including enthusiasts and collectors,” the official told a recent media workshop in Bangkok, Thailand.
According to Riccardo Forrester, a crime analyst at the United States Agency for International Development (USAid)- Wildlife Asia, online trading in illegal wildlife cushions the gangs against raids by law enforcers and makes it easier to reach wider global markets.
“It also makes a lot of financial sense because trading online helps one avoid taxation and any other form of regulation,” he said.
Salvatore Amato, a law enforcement specialist at USAid -Wildlife Asia, said that wildlife crime must be treated as a crime and not as a conservation issue.
“A holistic approach is needed to end the illicit trade that threatens the survival of iconic African species,” said Mr Amato.
“Such an approach will not involve a blame-game between African and Asian countries, but build enforcement capacity both at the source and the market.”
Marcos Mileo Brasil, a global forestry crime intelligence analyst at Interpol said that the enactment of relevant laws would disrupt the illicit online trade in the species.
“Some criminal groups are using international policies and laws to continue doing the business online, something that countries need to address urgently,” said Mr Brasil.
The global police organisation he said, was helping member countries build their capacity to disrupt and stop illicit markets in wildlife.
He said that Interpol through its “green crime” initiative was gathering intelligence on such crime, and sharing it with affected countries.
The initiative focuses on environmental crimes, by identifying trends, anticipating and deterring the commission of crime.
Mode of payments
Criminals, Mr Brasil said, were now shifting to crypto currencies such as bitcoin as a medium of payment, making detection even harder.
“The use of crypto currencies and modern methods of payments such as blockchain technology helps to hide the identities of people involved in this business,” said Mr Brasil.
According to Sarah Stoner, a senior investigations manager at the Hague-based, Wildlife Justice Commission, the capacity to combat “digitally-enabled” wildlife crime remains low, and is partly enabled by limited intelligence sharing as well as corruption in some countries.
The numbers of endangered wildlife getting killed each in year in Africa remains unacceptably high, she said, giving the example of South Africa where 1,215 rhinos were killed in 2014, and 1,054 in 2016, up from only 13 in 2007. She called for increased vigilance in both physical and cyber markets.
“While the 2016 cases signalled a decrease from the highest figures reported in 2014 of 1,215 poached rhinos, the levels are still significant and leave little room for complacency,” said Ms Stoner.
An investigation targeting 51 suspects engaged in rhino horns trade between Vietnam and China conducted between January and August 2016, notes that 1,061 kgs of rhinos were traded during the period.
The horns were believed to have been the result of the killing of between 401 and 579 rhinos and were valued at an estimated $42.7 million.
An elaborate criminal enterprise was engaged in thriving business in the horns across the Vietnam-China border, where s Chinese customers are currently paying between $17,600 and $22,300 for a kilo of the horn, based on prices received from different sellers in May and August 2017.
“The most valuable part of the horn is the tip, which weighs, at most, approximately one kilo and is valued at between $25,000 and $30,000, due to its shape; the tip is considered to hold greater artistic value,” Ms Stoner disclosed.
Since its creation in 2015, the Wildlife Commission has been developing tools for fighting the trade, including gathering social media intelligence.