Purveyors of all sorts of illegal and salacious goods and services have long occupied the shadowy edges of the World Wide Web. But in a new report on internet marketplaces, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found nearly $11 million worth of live, protected animals and illicitly acquired wildlife products for sale over the internet, sometimes on the most widely used online auction sites.
The trade was dominated by ivory, which made up nearly one-third of the ads. But over the six-week investigation of 280 web sites, IFAW found ads selling all sorts of live animals, including a "toilet-trained" gorilla for sale in Russia and an $18,000 cheetah up for bid in the Middle East. Also being sold were eight, giant clams in Germany, two bears in Russia, and a wolf in Poland, as well as a myriad of exotic birds, like Amazonian macaws. IFAW focused on sellers in 16 nations.
"It was really a horrific and shocking amount of wildlife that can be so easily purchased," Tania McCrea-Steele, who led the investigation, told VICE News. "We really had concerns about the legality of the sales, not to mention the welfare of the animals that were being traded."
Investigators found ads for just over 33,000 live animals and animal products that are protected or regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — an international agreement governing the wildlife trade.
IFAW reported nearly 2,000 cases to law enforcement agencies around the globe, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), hoping the agencies will investigate the sales and make arrests where possible. Australia's Department of the Environment announced in February it had seized illegal ivory products worth about $68,000 based on information provided by IFAW.
"If you eliminate the internet from the equation, it would remain more difficult for these guys to sell illegal wildlife products," Peter LaFontaine, a campaigns officer for IFAW, told VICE News. "It just facilitates this trade on a massive level that frankly the federal government in the United States and governments in Europe are still trying to grapple with."
'So you have organized criminal gangs, cartels, groups that are also involved in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, groups that deal in human trafficking.'
The wide assortment of illegally traded goods, coupled with the anonymity of the internet, makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to separate individuals who may not realize they're breaking the law from the organized crime syndicates that are increasingly dominating the wildlife trade. Cartels selling illegal animals and animal products can use the profits to fund more high risk trades, such as in arms and drugs, meaning an elephant-tusk seizure can potentially uncover more dangerous activities. "They tend to get packaged together, both figuratively and literally," LaFontaine told VICE News.
"We're seeing that the illegal wildlife trade is becoming less of a sort of crime of opportunity and more of an organized criminal activity," Gavin Shire, chief of public affairs for the USFWS, told VICE News. "So you have organized criminal gangs, cartels, groups that are also involved in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, groups that deal in human trafficking."
And while the USFWS has seen an uptick in online wildlife trade, organized crime groups are more likely to use web sites on the "dark web" — sites that have been hidden from search engines and are only accessible to those who have a URL — than the more widely-used auction sites, like Craigslist and eBay, which were the focus of IFAW's investigation. Those internet companies are more likely to host sellers who may be unaware of the laws or who are working individually, not with a syndicate.
Though eBay banned sales of ivory in 2007 and has a policy covering the sale of animals and wildlife products, varying national laws and incomplete information from sellers means many illegal sales slip through unnoticed. The United States, for example, prohibits commercial trade of ivory with few exceptions, while many other countries do not. IFAW found one trader on eBay who sold 58 different ivory items over the span of six weeks. Many other sites monitor their auctions far less stringently than eBay.
"Quite a few of the items are things that the language is so flagrant as to constitute a pretty clear violation of national or international law," LaFontaine told VICE News. "When you're talking about selling a captive gorilla, anyone who has access to a gorilla knows that these things are not legal to trade."
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