Saving elephants in a digital world

A herd of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) walking in line

When Beth (whose real name is withheld to protect her identity) turns on her computer during her lunch break at work, she opens a private browsing window and types in the address of an online retailer. Her fingers fly over her keyboard as she punches in keywords and scrutinizes her screen. But she’s not shopping. She’s looking for illegal sales of ivory online.

Why? Because advances in technology and connectivity across the world, combined with rising buying power and demand for illegal wildlife products, have made it easier for poachers and dealers to get illegal ivory into the hands of buyers with limited risk. And criminals are taking advantage of many these online marketplaces, search engines and social media platforms to sell illegally obtained wildlife products across the globe. More than 20,000 African elephants are killed each year in order to meet demand for ivory trinkets and ornamental objects. As nations like China close their physical markets, those sales increasingly happen online.

That’s where Beth comes in. She is a Panda Ambassador, part of a team of activists who champion WWF’s work. She and about two dozen other ambassadors work as Wildlife Cyber Spotters—citizen detectives trained by WWF and TRAFFIC wildlife crime experts to scour online retail platforms for prohibited products. Cyber spotters report suspicious ads, and WWF works with the platforms to remove them. In a pilot project last year, spotters scouring three platforms flagged 575 ads over a seven-week period with 96% accuracy.

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Beth, who has been involved since the initiative began last summer, says “It’s a little jarring” each time she flags an ad. “It hurts a little bit to see that people are selling these things and exploiting animals with or without knowing.”

She continues to be surprised by the number of illegal products she finds. “It probably takes me half an hour to find 20 [problematic ads],” she says. “If you [want] to, you can search and flag things all day.”

Beth isn’t alone. Twenty one companies with operations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America joined forces in launching the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. 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.

Read the full feature story in the latest issues of World Wildlife Magazine.