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The Not-so-Hidden World of Wildlife Trafficking

  • Date: 27 March 2024

Among popular dance-off videos, viral memes, and virtual shopping carts, lies a complex web of illegal activity to buy, sell, and smuggle protected wildlife globally. Online platforms are now the dominant market for the trafficking of live wildlife for exotic pets and wildlife products, the second most significant threat to endangered species after habitat loss. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was involved in two key events leading up to World Wildlife Day that highlighted the threats and solutions that can expose and deter organized crime networks trafficking wildlife online.

The threat to wildlife online is real

WWF, with its conservation partners, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and TRAFFIC convene the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which brings together nearly 50 of the leading global e-commerce, social media and tech companies to equip them with tools and information to detect and prevent prohibited wildlife sales on their platforms.

Finding New Ways to Fight Wildlife Trafficking Online

Despite existing U.S. laws that regulate the trade of wildlife threatened with extinction, the online trade presents unique loopholes that make it difficult to build cases, identify criminals, and determine jurisdiction among global enforcement agencies. Responses vary based on the capacity of law enforcement and the interest of online companies. WWF and its partners are starting a dialogue to find common sense solutions to the lack of specific regulations on online wildlife trafficking.


Expert Panel Looks at Opportunities for Policy Reform and Partnership

On February 27th, experts from eBay, IFAW, PetSmart, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement (USFWS OLE) joined a panel moderated by WWF, to speak to congressional staff about the impacts of wildlife trafficking online and opportunities for policy reform.

The discussion explored regulatory and other options to combat wildlife trafficking online, particularly the trade in live, exotic animals by private individuals, where regulation and resourcing could help to protect wild populations, reduce the risk of invasive species introduction, zoonotic disease, exploitation of legitimate supply chains, and to support international security.

“As members of Congress, we should consider what more we can do to help address this problem, both in terms of the current resources and authorities available to federal agencies as well as how we can help ensure that companies are doing their part to shut down this virtual black market,” Rep. Buddy Carter, a House Energy & Commerce Committee member, said in recorded remarks.

Dr. Krystan Grant, PetSmart Director of Pet Health, shared the importance of strong sourcing and welfare standards for live animal sales that the pet chain has implemented and the advantages of buying exotic pets from a well-established and managed pet store compared to buying an exotic pet from a stranger online. “We believe that the process of acquiring a pet should involve careful consideration, interaction, and education, which can generally best be provided through in-store experiences.”

Leveraging Technology to Conserve Wildlife

Just days later, the State Department Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs convened a World Wildlife Day event on conservation and technology solutions, including a panel comprised of eBay, USFWS Office of Law Enforcement, and WWF to discuss the challenges and opportunities that technology and artificial intelligence present to address wildlife trafficking online.

World Wildlife Day event

“The solutions lie in leveraging technology and automatic detection capabilities to scale interventions addressing wildlife trafficking online and staying one step ahead of the criminals as they evolve their methods,” said Crawford Allan, WWF Senior Director of Wildlife Conservation.

USFWS OLE highlighted how technology helps them distill information and leads online to the most serious cases for their team of special agents to follow. eBay is piloting AI technology to filter their vast number of sales listings to address prohibited content. With advanced text and image models trained on thousands of terms and photos associated with wildlife trafficking, eBay removed 500,000 prohibited wildlife listings last year.

Check out the Online Wildlife Trafficking Nature Breaking Episode ---> Online Wildlife Trafficking | Nature Breaking Podcast | WWF (worldwildlife.org)

The Importance of Cross-sectoral, Multi-faceted Solutions and Cooperation

The scale of wildlife trafficking online is immense and growing. Both events in Washington DC emphasized that only with proper resources, technological innovation, and supporting regulation, will the growing cross-sectoral response be able to get ahead of the organized crime groups profiting from extinction.

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