Slipping through the net: The illegal online wildlife trade

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.

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.

No elephants at India’s Elephant Festival


Jaipur, 26 March 2013

Jaipur, 26 March 2013

I was in Jaipur, India for this year’s annually celebrated Elephant Festival held in the so-called ‘pink’ city two weeks ago. The Elephant Festival is supposed to be held to celebrate Holi, an Indian festival that fills every street with colour to inaugurate the spring season. The festival, held at the Rajasthan Polo Grounds, boasted a plethora of Jaipur’s finest talent: dancers in traditional garb, singers thrilling foreign audiences with folk songs, and turban-tying competitions that left the tourists in a twist. This year’s elephant festival however, was conspicuously missing one thing: the elephants.

The cavalcade of elephants, pimped-out so to speak, for a beauty competition which is usually followed by a tug-of-war and an elephant polo match – as it turns out – was flagged by animal rights’ activists from PETA as a cause of serious ill-treatment of the animals, with the Mahouts using inhumane techniques such as iron hooks to train the elephants.

So, whilst many tourists were disappointed at the lack of jumbo-sized pageantry at Jaipur this year, Rajasthan Department of Tourism’s decision to scrap the elephant festival was a decisive gain for the elephants themselves. Assistant Director of Tourism Department of Rajasthan, Upendra Singh Shekhawa passed the buck to the state-controlled Animal Welfare Board, stating “The Animal Welfare Board of India had written to us that there is some violation of exhibiting the elephants. That is why; we are going whatever they are saying. We will adopt whatever they want”.

PETA activist Sarvgya Bhargil, explained the problem more clearly, stating that the elephants used in the festival are given insufficient food and are chained into tight spaces by their Mahout handlers, causing them to develop foot infections and arthritis. He also argued against the use of performing animals as keeping elephants and camels in captivity for long periods of time restricts their natural social behaviour and can induce health problems and loneliness.

The Elephant Festival is a clear example of how irresponsible tourism can be. The cancellation of this year’s Elephant Festival should stand as a precedent to stop the cruel treatment of performing animals in India.

Poaching Britain’s rhinos

A report in AFP today said that the British police have noted an increase in rhino poaching in Britain’s wildlife parks. The Aspinall Foundation which, a wildlife charity which runs two animal parks in Kent in southeastern England, appealed for residents living near those parks to keep a watch for suspicious activity.

The Aspinall Foundation’s chairman, Damian Aspinall, said police had told them there was a “genuine threat” which it attributed to poachers seeking the rhinos’ valuable horns.

“It is tragic and beyond belief that, as we do everything possible to restore these magnificent animals safely to the wild, the traders who seek to profit from their slaughter should bring their vile activities to the UK,” he said.

The foundation has 20 black rhinos across its two parks in Kent, out of an estimated 200 held in captivity around the world and just 700 who survive in the wild.

This report should alert us of how intense of a threat poaching is to the black rhino.

Here’s a weird argument


Alexander N. Songorwa, Director of wildlife for the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism has written a piece in the New York Times about why trophy hunting is invaluable to Tanzania’s wildlife. 

Trophy hunters pay incredible amounts of money to the Tanzanian government to hunt wild lions – about $1.9 million every year. This money, plus the millions of dollars spent annually on camping out in the bush (which amounts to a total of $75 million), are an important source of revenue for 26 wildlife parks, their employees and the local communities which they support.

Listing lions as endangered would put a stop to trophy hunting, but the effects of this may be counteracted by a lack of funding to maintain Tanzania’s wildlife. 

Songorwa’s argument may seem outrageous to animal lovers, but in practical terms, the revenue generated by hunting excursions are in fact indispensable and the revenue they generate annually give an important incentive to maintain these wildlife parks rather than razing the ground they stand on for agriculture or industry.
Painfully, I have to admit, though trophy hunting is abhorrent and tragic, it seems to have a utilitarian value in maintaining wildlife habitats. 
The argument around trophy hunting shouldn’t be about whether it should be illegal or not, but rather about how much we need to regulate it in order to protect the species and habitats it affects.

Shark tales, ebony and ivory: a round up of the 2013 CITES conference


This year’s CITES conference in Thailand has come to a close and a new international agenda to protect sharks will headline tomorrow. In an unprecedented move to protect the world’s marine life, eight species of sharks and rays will become a priority for conservation action.

A crack down on the illegal poaching of elephants for their tusks and rhino for their horns has also been announced.

According to a press release from CITES,

The conference saw a record number of countries vote to regulate the international trade in the Oceanic Whitetip Shark, three hammerhead species,  the Porbeagle shark and the two existing species of manta rays. Parties also voted to ban the international commercial trade in the Critically Endangered Freshwater Sawfish.

The rising demand for shark fins, shark meat, gill plates, and aquarium animals is seriously threatening the survival of these species, according to IUCN. Up to 1.2 million Oceanic Whitetip Sharks, which are fished for their large and distinctive fins, pass through the markets of Southeast Asia every year and over 4,000 manta rays are harpooned for their gills.

“This is a historic step towards better protection of these marine species,” says Nick Dulvy, Co-Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Shark Specialist Group. “Now, after nearly two decades of slow and fragmentary progress, Parties agreed that CITES can complement existing national fisheries measures to ensure that global trade is sustainable and legal.”

Attending parties also reaffirmed their commitment to stop the illegal trade of ivory and rhino horn. Country-specific measures were noted to implement this.

According to the IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group, poaching of African rhinos increased by 43% between 2011 and 2012 and illegal rhino horn trade continues to pose a serious threat to rhinos worldwide.

Finally, a commitment to curb the trade of Madagascan timber, specifically rosewood and ebony was announced.

Other decisions taken at the meeting include actions relating to a number of crocodile and snake species, a renewed focus on monitoring of the trade in pangolins and continued commitment to sustainably manage the Humphead Wrasse fishery – an Endangered, coral-dwelling species that was one of the first commercially fished species to be addressed under CITES.

Return of the Painted Wolves



An update from Finny Taylor and Hannah Davenport in Kenya:

Increased spotting’s have recently been occurring of Africa’s
rare Wild Dog in Kenya. Currently one of the continents most
endangered predators; these creatures were believed to have
completely vanished from some regions.

In Kenya it is now thought that only six percent of wild dogs’
historical range might still support resident populations. However
increased, recent sightings both in the Maasai Mara reserve and
Laikipia region suggest they are making a return. Last year the
Ol Pejeta Conservancy announced the birth of nine puppies- the
first time in over a decade that a pack of wild dogs had denned on
the conservancy. Their tortoise-shell coat and large, rounded ears
make these animals an intriguing sight to behold: that is if you are
lucky enough to spot them.

Elephants at Ol Pejeta breaking fences


This video, filmed by Finnoula Taylor and Hannah Davenport at the Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya shows a herd of elephants breaking fences to cross into forbidden territory.

When areas are fenced off for agricultural purposes, elephants lose migrations paths and are constricted to increasingly small territories. When elephant populations in one area grow, the land can no longer support them. In the dry season, this can lead to dehydration and starvation of elephants. This also leads to conflict with local farmers and as a result, many elephants are killed.

A letter from Leonardo Di Caprio – if he’s jumping, I’m jumping


In 2012,  sanctuary around Antarctica was blocked by Russia, China and the Ukraine. But the letter below, signed by Leonardo Di Caprio, got over 1 million people to sign a petition in October 2012, which led to a new postponed meeting for July 2013 to discuss the issue of protecting Antarctica. The petition still needs more signatories to keep the pressure up later this year: 

I’m writing to ask for your help. Within days, governments could begin turning wide stretches of the Antarctic ocean into the world’s largest marine sanctuary, saving the habitat of whales, penguins, and thousands of other polar species from industrial fishing fleets.

But they won’t act unless we speak out now.

Most countries support the sanctuary, but Russia, South Korea and a few others are threatening to vote it down so they can plunder these seas now that others have been fished to death. This week, a small group of negotiators will meet behind closed doors to make a decision. A massive people-powered surge could break open the talks, isolate those attempting to block the sanctuary, and secure a deal to protect over 6 million square kilometers of the precious Antarctic ocean.

The whales and penguins can’t speak for themselves, so it’s up to us to defend them. Let’s change negotiators’ minds with a massive wave of public pressure – Avaaz will surround the meeting with hard-hitting ads, and together we’ll deliver our message to delegates via a deafening cry on social networks. Sign this urgent petition and share it with everyone you know:

More than 10,000 species call these remote Antarctic waters their home, including blue whales, leopard seals, and emperor penguins, and many are found nowhere else on Earth. Climate change has already taken a cruel toll on their fragile habitat, but they will come under further threat from the industrial fishing fleet’s mile-long nets cast over these precious waters. Only a marine sanctuary will increase their odds for survival.

The 25-member governing body that regulates the Antarctic oceans has already committed to creating these marine protected areas. But the two plans being negotiated — one to protect part of the fragile Ross Sea and one for East Antarctica — are at risk of dilution or delay. Shockingly, the talks have been off the media’s radar and countries like Russia and South Korea are betting their opposition will go unnoticed, but if we cast a public spotlight on the talks we can force them to back off, and encourage champions like the US and EU to push for even stronger protections.

The future of the Southern ocean is in our hands. Let’s unleash a massive surge of global pressure and ensure governments don’t put profits before our planet. Please sign and share this petition with everyone you know:

The Avaaz community has come together time and time again to protect our oceans. We’ve already helped win two of the largest marine reserves in the world. But the threats to our oceans continue, and one by one species are coming closer to the brink. Join me in saving the Antarctic ocean before it’s too late.

With hope,

Leonardo DiCaprio, with the Avaaz team

Tracking the tusks found in Singapore from Mombasa disguised as waste paper


Tracking the tusks found in Singapore from Mombasa disguised as waste paper

If the 1,099 tusks are to be returned to the country of origin Kenya, there may a chance for them to slip back into the supply chain of illegal wildlife products. Therefore, WWF-Singapore and TRAFFIC Southeast Asia encourage Singaporean authorities to incinerate the tusks once the audit and investigations are complete.