Social Media Slaughter

Social media and e-commerce sites are the new battlegrounds for the illegal wildlife trade.

Cartoon elephant at a computer.

Illustrated by:


"Yellow materials." "White plastic." "Jelly."

Harmless words and phrases, right? Sadly, no. All three are code words used by wildlife traffickers to sell illegal ivory online.

It’s actually kind of a brilliant use of the internet. Dealers post fake ads on e-commerce websites and drop in a few code words. Savvy buyers can then find the postings with a keyword search, but anyone else browsing around just sees an inconspicuous posting for “African materials” (another euphemism for ivory).

“White” is yet another word that stands in for elephant tusk. “Black” means rhino horn. And “red,” which is all the rage these days, signifies helmeted hornbill beak.

Fortunately, animal advocates and enforcement agencies are getting hip to these word games. And in the global fight against online poaching, an organization called TRAFFIC is the tip of the spear.

Managed by the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, TRAFFIC is a network of organizations that monitor the wildlife goods black market. Earlier this month, its report entitled “Moving Targets” detailed keyword strategies employed by smugglers in China. It also reported the industry’s disconcerting shift toward social media. (Dislike.)

Welcome to the World Wide Web

TRAFFIC has been on the hunt for wildlife dealers on the web since 2006, when it conducted a survey of the internet to see whether the trade had made the leap online. It had. Over the course of eight months, TRAFFIC uncovered 332 ivory and 193 rhino horn products being sold on Chinese-language websites. That was only the beginning.

For a few years, TRAFFIC monitored the Chinese web, dutifully forwarding anything it found to law enforcement agencies. But by 2012,t it was clear these keyword crusaders needed to up their game.

In January of that year, the organization got hits for more than 30,000 illegal wildlife advertisements. In May, the number shot up to 50,000. And these results were found while monitoring 15 selected websites for 12 code words representing just five products—ivory, rhino horn, tiger bone, hawksbill turtle shells, and pangolin scales. The true number of illegal dealings going down on the web was likely much higher.

"Tracking how illegal wildlife is sold, particularly small items like carved ivory trinkets and rhino horn that can be easily shipped around the world, is very important," says Andrew Wetzler, an expert on wildlife issues for the Natural Resource Defense Council (disclosure). "Here in the United States, we know that much of the illegal ivory sold in California originates in online transactions from carving factories in China."

That June TRAFFIC hosted a workshop with China’s delegation of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the National Forest Police Bureau, and 15 of the nation’s leading e-commerce sellers, such as Alibaba, Taobao, and Tencent. All parties signed a zero-tolerance declaration and promised to work together to snuff out the illegal online trade of wildlife. (Just yesterday, 17 courier companies, including FedEx and DHL, also signed a zero-tolerance pledge.)

The move was a success. The number of new wildlife advertisements dropped fourfold the following month and has remained at that level ever since. But—and it’s a big “but”—fewer ads don’t necessarily translate to fewer transactions.

Today, TRAFFIC monitors 25 e-commerce sites for 64 code words and has added leopard bones, Saiga antelope horn, and hornbill casques to the search list. The e-commerce sites themselves have proven invaluable in policing the ads, removing them as soon as they’re detected and blocking suspicious keywords when possible. (Blocking all code words isn’t practical since many of them can be used for legitimate purposes. Artisanal jelly-makers need to make a living, after all.)

So what’s to stop dealers from changing their secret codes? Nothing.

As the authorities crack dealer codes, dealers make new ones or find other ways of skirting the law—sort of like the coevolution that occurs between predator and prey, or an arms race between countries. And just as TRAFFIC has gotten the hang of busting e-commerce rings, the battleground appears to have shifted beneath its feet.

The pangolin, a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, is being driven to extinction by the illegal wildlife trade.
Credit: Photo: David Brossard/Flickr

The Anti-Social Network

Social media, according to TRAFFIC, is where the fight for poached and smuggled species will take place in the future.

Last March, the organization began tracking the sale of illegal wildlife products across some of China’s social platforms, such as WeChat. In just one month, the organization identified 77 rhino horn products, 46 helmeted hornbill casques, and ivory products numbering in the thousands—all from just six dealers. (While the sale of some ivory products is still legal in China, internet ads for ivory are banned.)

The new messaging mediums present a huge danger to endangered and threatened species. Unlike public e-commerce and antiques websites, social media has a monitoring problem, because users can set their accounts to private. That means if TRAFFIC is going to become the park ranger of social media, it will have to find a way to convince its targets to, in Facebook parlance, friend them.

Fei Zhou, head of TRAFFIC’s China office, says the trackers are trying to infiltrate these social circles, but it’s slow going. Dealers may work through agents or middlemen, who are able to reach new online audiences and further remove their clients from culpability. In other words, TRAFFIC can spend hours shutting down one middleman without ever getting close to the kingpin.

And unlike keyword searches, which can be programmed and automated, this type of tracking isn’t set-and-forget. According to the report, “Dealers also check their followers regularly and may block those who never buy products or post updates.” No lurkers allowed.

“It is so expansive and random, and often anonymity is easy for those that want to abuse social media for trafficking wildlife,” says Crawford Allan, a wildlife trafficking expert with WWF and TRAFFIC. “Closing down one account just means that another will pop up by the same person with a different profile.”

Social networking sites at home have become a haven for wildlife traders, too. Gavin Shire, the chief of public affairs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, confirms that his agency’s monitoring tends to turn up more “takes”—i.e., the illegal killing or harassment of protected species—than the sale of their parts. Americans, it seems, enjoy bragging about their crimes against nature online. (Dumb, dumber, dumbest.)

Speed Kills

One of the biggest problems in trying to shut down the black market online is the same thing that makes the web great for legal trade: speed of service. A wildlife dealer can post an ad, receive payment, and ship the product in minutes, the same way Amazon gets you that ream of printer paper before your coffee gets cold the following morning.

This is why TRAFFIC wants online transaction and courier companies to join the fight. It also hopes to work with social media companies to see if they’d be willing to help in ways that don’t conflict with their privacy policies. And, of course, do-gooder users could contribute, too.

“We hope we can use social media to combat this problem by calling on the online community to self-police their social media channels and alert the authorities,” says Allan.

One thing’s clear—time is of the essence. Last year saw a hundredfold increase in the number of rhinos poached in South Africa since 2006. In 2011 alone, one out of every 12 African elephants on earth was slaughtered—some estimates put elephant poaching deaths at 96 per day.

If we lose this battle of the web, species will go extinct IRL, 4ever.

Credit: Photo: RayMorris1

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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