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Slipping Through the Net: The Illegal Online Wildlife Trade

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On Friday, three men from the Fujian province in China, named Chen, He and Zhao were sentenced for smuggling a total of 7.7 tonnes of ivory from Africa to China. The trio's activities account for the deaths of 819 African elephants, over a period of six months in 2011, which was already labelled an annus horriblis by the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC - the worst year for elephants since records began. The landmark sentencing is a victory for wildlife protection authorities in China, where the illicit ivory trade is thriving. However, under-funded wildlife authorities across the world are scratching their heads about how to regulate the illegal wildlife trade as it moves online.

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Photo by Vidhi Doshi

The role of crime syndicates such as the Fujian trio, in the illicit trade of wildlife is becoming increasingly clear. The New York Times recently compared the ivory trade with Sierra Leone's blood diamonds: a "conflict resource", which is luring in notorious armed groups such as Lord's Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur's janjaweed. These groups are plundering Africa of its most majestic beasts; hunting down elephants and selling their tusks to fund militant movements and bring weapons and disorder into war-torn regions of Africa.

As elephant populations disappear rapidly, the illicit trade of ivory is growing. A report by Interpol and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) published last month noted that hundreds of ivory items, worth approximately 1.5million euro were being advertised for sale over a two-week period of online surveillance. In an earlier report, in 2011 IFAW reported that ivory was the most widely traded wildlife product on the Internet. IFAW found over 660 ivory products on various auction sites including Ebay, with no indication that the seller had supporting documentation to prove that the ivory was acquired before the 1989 trade ban.

Vincent Nijman, a researcher at Oxford Brookes University who has researched the trade of wildlife products, however explained to me that high value products such as ivory or the rhino horn represented only a fraction of the online ivory trade. A simple Google search returns hundreds of advertisements for lesser-known, critically endangered species - dried seahorses, Kaiser-spotted newts, tortoises: auction sites and forums housed hundreds, if not thousands of adverts for illegal wildlife products.

I went looking for illegal wildlife products online and found that they were just a few clicks away.

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Photo by Vidhi Doshi

This seller is advertising two baby pangolins, a critically endangered species sought for its scales and its meat. Trade of this anteater has been banned since 2002.

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Photo by Vidhi Doshi

This seller advertising a critically endangered six-inch Ploughshare tortoise on a Facebook group entitled tortoises for sale. One commenter writes: "these tortoises are an endangered species its illegal to sell them!!!" but the group administrator writes "Sold."

This was only after a few minutes of research, but it does indicate that the illegal wildlife trade is mushrooming through social networking and auction sites as well as online forums. If these species were so easy to find online, on open auction sites, I wondered what I would find in the black abyss of the Dark Web.

The TOR network, which stands for The Onion Router is an online anonymity network, which bounces IP addresses all over the world, layering encryption and making it virtually impossible to track a user's location. If big game is lurking somewhere on the Internet, it's most likely to be here.

TOR is the back alley of the Internet. Here, any arms-dealing, child-porn-watching, cocaine-snorting assassin could advertise his nefarious talents - and they do. Senator Charles Schumer asked US federal authorities to shut down websites on TOR when it was launched in 2011 but so far TOR has completely stumped surveillance units. Websites are hosted anonymously and users are virtually untraceable.

An officer from the National Wildlife Crime Unit assured me that UK surveillance authorities were aware of the illicit wildlife trade on the Deep Web. However, he said, most of the traders communicated via forums and message boards. Derek Mead exposed a Dark Web rhino horn seller on a Dark Web message board under the username Keros who offered to sell him "pure keratin hunted in Namibia."

I started at the Silk Road.

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Photo by Vidhi Doshi

The Silk Road is like a more magical Amazon, where instead of buying books or DVDs, people come to buy pills and powders of all colours and sizes. Drugs, porn, and stolen goods are easy to find here, but no reptiles, no chimps, no rhino horn and no ivory.

What all this tells me, is that though the illicit wildlife trade is nowhere near as large and lucrative as drugs or arms, it is there: lurking in the background, increasingly organised and increasingly sinister. The fact that people don't feel the need to resort as much to the Dark Web to sell ivory suggests that too many loopholes in the law around wildlife trade are allowing people to disguise illegal products as though they are perfectly legal.

This means that already underfunded wildlife crime units devote a large part of their resources trying to distinguish which products are being sold legally and which are illegal. The law around wildlife trade is clearly in dire need of revision so criminal syndicates can be caught more easily.

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