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Illegal Wildlife Traders in China Migrating to Social Media for Sales

Revealing new e-commerce report from TRAFFIC

Ivory carving for sale Kowloon, Hong Kong, China

Beyond bricks and mortar, illegal wildlife traders in China are increasingly using social media and code words to reach buyers.

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online ivory sale

Screenshot of illegal elephant ivory being sold on a Chinese social media platform.

China has the world’s biggest online community with an estimated $274.6 billion spent on online trade in 2014. As commercial sites have cracked down on illegal sales, wildlife criminals in China are increasingly taking to popular social media platforms to sell illegal wildlife products, particularly ivory, according to new research from TRAFFIC on the Chinese-language online retail community.

Moving targets: Tracking online sales of illegal wildlife products in China analyzed the results of market monitoring of China’s online retailers starting in 2006. At its peak in March 2012, more than 4,000 new advertisements per month for illegal wildlife products were appearing online on Chinese-language online retail websites. More than half of the illegal products offered comprised ivory items. TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network, worked with e-commerce and enforcement agencies to remove advertisements and block code words used to describe illegal products. The volume fell dramatically to around 1,500 from July 2012 and has remained around that level ever since.

The report notes that wildlife criminals are now migrating to new online platforms for illegal wildlife transactions: social media. TRAFFIC found that dealers are releasing photos and information about their products via social media in order to attract and interact with potential customers. Some dealers are also using “agents” to extend their audiences by re-posting the information about illegal wildlife products onto their own social media platform.

Illegal wildlife traders are also using a broader vocabulary of code words to escape notice. The number of code words used by sellers to conceal the identity of their goods had increased from 15 in 2012 to 64 identified and monitored by TRAFFIC today. All the code words are searched each month by TRAFFIC on 25 e-commerce and antique-selling websites for eight wildlife products: ivory, rhino horn, Tiger bone, hawksbill shells, pangolin scales, leopard bones, saiga horn and hornbill casques. TRAFFIC reveals that at least 22 code words exist for ivory, including terms such as “African materials, yellow materials, white plastic and jelly.”

“The shift into the secretive world of social media marketing creates a whole new suite of challenges, with enforcement agencies constantly seeking to keep one step ahead of the traffickers,” said Yannick Kuehl, TRAFFIC’s Regional Director for East and South Asia. “Monitoring and policing this underground marketplace must become a top enforcement priority—it appears criminals are using it to carry out their clandestine activities.”

Read the full report.