WWF and partners have worked both publicly and behind the scenes for more than a decade to help establish wildlife policies for e-commerce and social media sites, and more recently to train employees to detect violations. But it was in 2012, while reviewing Google’s wildlife policies, that Crawford Allan, senior director of TRAFFIC at WWF, hit upon the key to halting the illegal wildlife trade online. He realized that creating effective policies at one company would just drive traffickers to other sites. And the concept of a global coalition was born. Allan and program officer Giavanna Grein, also of TRAFFIC at WWF, began to cultivate relations in earnest in 2015 with leading e-commerce and social media companies, including eBay and Google in the US, while WWF-China brought in companies like Alibaba and Tencent.
In 2016, Google hosted a workshop for the companies to discuss collaboration, and WWF partnered with TRAFFIC and IFAW to bring together the leading technical experts who had been monitoring wildlife trafficking online. Those efforts culminated in a harmonized wildlife policy framework for online trade.
The policy framework helps address the challenges large tech companies face in policing multiple platforms across different countries, laws, and jurisdictions. It also simplifies shopping guidelines for consumers, educates users about product legality, and eliminates loopholes that would make it easier for criminals to traffic wildlife online. It includes a list of prohibited items: animals and animal products that are illegally traded under international law—everything from live birds to tiger teeth.
In March 2018, after over two years of building up companies’ understanding of the challenge and demonstrating opportunities for collaboration across the industry, WWF hosted an event with Google in San Francisco. There, the world’s leading e-commerce, social media, and technology companies made a game-changing announcement.
Twenty-one companies with operations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America joined Google in launching the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online (see sidebar). The companies, in partnership with wildlife experts at WWF, TRAFFIC, and IFAW, pledged a multi-pronged, industry-wide approach aimed at reducing online trafficking by 80% by 2020.
“This coalition represents a global movement of companies, organizations, and everyday people willing to take action to halt the current trajectory of an exploding criminal wildlife cyber market,” says Allan, who is spearheading the coalition. “The partnership is really the solution, because law enforcement internationally has not prioritized this threat and does not have the capacity.”
In addition to providing policy guidance, wildlife experts share global and regional trend data and provide educational materials and training to help coalition companies spot illegal wildlife products.
“In recent years,” says Tian Shen, senior researcher in safety management at coalition member Tencent, “we have noticed that more diversified forms of [illegal trade] are moving to the internet. We have the responsibility to do more about this.”
“We can all learn from each other,” says Daniel Draper, a senior policy specialist with the security department at Chinese tech conglomerate Alibaba. “And then we can best use each other’s competencies to improve our own.”
That includes helping one another see the full scope of the problem. “We don’t have the full picture in front of us,” continues Draper. “We can see our e-commerce stuff, but we don’t know what’s being done on search, or what’s being done on social media. But the people doing the trafficking are probably using all of those tools.”
In this regard, the coalition promises to be bigger than the sum of its parts. “By bringing all of these companies together to push illegal wildlife trade off their websites and apps, we can prevent sellers from jumping from platform to platform,” says Grein.
“Let’s not just move this problem onto another platform,” says Jen Merriss, head of Google’s ads policy team. “Let’s solve it.”