Online illegal wildlife trade: Species extinction at Internet speed

THE illegal wildlife trade is a major driver of biodiversity loss.  In the Philippines, the problem of rampant buying and selling of wild-caught or harvested flora and fauna reflects a global concern especially in biodiversity-rich regions like Southeast Asia, East Asia, Africa and Central America.

Hunting for sport and trophy, their meat for food, skin for bags and accessories and body parts for medicine, or even live animals for the pet trade, on a commercial scale has driven iconic animals to the brink of extinction—elephants, tigers, rhinos, lions, leopards and other animals like monkeys, turtles, birds, fish, snakes and lizards.

Among the topmost traded wildlife and wildlife parts are the elephant, rhino, pangolin and tiger.

A document by the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) revealed that the drive to buy them includes perceptions of their ability to cure illness or bring good health, for their rarity and beauty and for good luck or fortune.

Among the drivers to purchase elephant tusks are perceptions of rarity, purity and spirituality, beauty and good luck or good fortune, according to the Usaid paper titled “Consumer Research Findings on Elephant, Pangolin, Rhino and Tiger Parts and Products in China.” Among those who bought rhino parts and or products, the drivers to purchase are perceptions that rhino horns bring good health or well-being and cure illnesses. Pangolin is popular because of two major reasons—the beliefs that pangolin parts cure illness and bring good health or well-being. For the tiger, among those who bought tiger parts and/or products, the top four drivers to purchase are perceptions that tigers are rare, they cure illness, bring good health and improve sexual prowess.

For whatever reason, the rampant illegal trade in wildlife aggravates the massive habitat loss, pollution, the spread of deadly diseases, the infestation of invasive alien species and, lately, climate change impact leading to the extinction of targeted species.

An evolving illegal activity

LIKE in other countries, illegal wildlife trade in the Philippines is evolving along with the technological evolution that led to the development of high-tech gadgets that can access the Internet.

The use of simple short messaging service or text messaging, untraceable subscriber identity module, or SIM, cards and burner phones make unscrupulous traders hard to catch. The buying and selling of wild-caught or harvested plants and animals has become an even more lucrative trade, with the easy access to a bigger market and extended reach through the Internet.

Aided by unbridled Internet technology, illegal wildlife trade has become even more challenging to concerned government agencies and wildlife law enforcers.

This is despite a slew of environmental laws, particularly Republic Act (RA) 9147, or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act of 2001; and RA 7586, or the National Integrated Protected Act System (Nipas) Act of 1992 as amended by RA 11038, or the Expanded Nipas Act of 2018 in the Philippines.

Catching up

PLAYING catch-up, the Philippine government through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) launched on November 22 a project to combat environmental organized crime.

The three-year “Combating Environmental Crime in the Philippines” project was launched in cooperation with the Asian Development Bank-Global Environment Facility during the 2nd Wildlife Law Enforcement Summit at the Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga, with particular focus on legal reforms, strengthening law enforcement capacity and raising public awareness to reduce the demand for wildlife and wildlife parts.

Kicking off on November 20 with the theme “Moving Forward: Scaling Up Wildlife Law Enforcement,” the three-day summit gathered wildlife law enforcement officers throughout the country, affirming their commitment to combating illegal wildlife trade.

A lucrative trade

THE global illegal wildlife trade continues to thrive. Aided by information and communication technology and now the more advanced and widely used Internet platforms, buying and selling made the business brisker than ever.

The estimated value of illegal wildlife trade varies by one institution to another.

The World Bank’s Global Wildlife Program placed the value of illegal wildlife trade between $7.8 billion and $10 billion per year. It is currently considered the fourth most lucrative trade next to narcotics or illegal drugs trade, human trafficking and arms trafficking.

Often, the value of wildlife or wildlife parts, depending on their rarity and beauty, or perceived medical benefits, is more precious than gold.

The value of rhino horns sits at the level of $65,000 (about P3,419,650) per kilo. A rare parrot egg seized in Thailand would have made a trader $33,000 (around P1,736,130) richer. A kilo of elephant tusks could cost as much as $2,100 (P110,481).

Being a consumer, source and transit point for illegally traded wildlife, wildlife parts or products, the value of trade in illegal wildlife in the Philippines is roughly P50 billion or $1 billion a year, including “the market value of the wildlife and resources, their ecological role and value and damage to habitats incurred during poaching and loss in potential ecotourism revenues.”

Digitally aided

AIDED by advanced technology—smartphones, Internet technology and the ever-growing popularity of social media, illegal wildlife trade on the Internet is fast becoming the new trend.

During a weeklong training held in Bangkok, Thailand, from November 5 to 9 on “Reporting the Illegal Internet Trade in Wildlife for Journalists from Africa and Asia,” experts in combating wildlife crimes revealed the extent the illegal wildlife trade and the reach of organized crime groups that have conveniently found online marketplaces and boosted by various social-media platforms.

The conference, conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in partnership with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime or Global Initiative and funded by the government of Norway, noted that governments and law enforcement agencies are once again caught a step behind in terms of technological capacity, with online marketplaces and social-media platforms having been used in the illegal trade in wildlife.

Playing the game “catch me if you can,” these unscrupulous traders and their agents are becoming more elusive, Simone Haysom, senior analyst of Global Initiative, said.

Haysom said that even with online marketplaces and social-media platforms committing to take down advertisements or social-media posts pertaining to selling or buying wildlife, illegal wildlife trade on the Internet persists.

Enforcing the law against illegal wildlife trade online, she added, may pose a bigger challenge to governments with the issue of jurisdiction or even governments’ legal capacity to challenge multi-billion-dollar companies raking profits from the lucrative business of online marketing of a wide range of goods and services.

NGOs at play

HAYSOM hinted that nongovernment organizations (NGO) may, at some extent, pose a legal challenge against big online marketplaces or social-media networks, but the question is who will make such initiative considering the cost of litigation and the trouble of challenging multibillion-dollar companies with a pool of legal experts on its payroll.

NGOs like Global Initiative are banking on strong partnerships with journalists, whether they work independently, or companies that operate print, television, radio, multimedia or online media companies, to combat illegal trade in wildlife.

In the group’s study, Haysom said there is no one illegal wildlife trade, the coverage of which is dominated by charismatic megafauna like elephant (tusks), rhino (horns) tigers (skin, teeth parts) and pangolin (scales and internal organs), although thousands of species, including plants, are trafficked on a massive scale.

Apparently, she said different commodities have different value chains and market dynamics.

Yet, she said the nature of demand and value, need for processing or live transport, overlap with legal trade, countries of origin and consumption, which affect trade dynamics.

Finally, issues of legality can be highly complex because of the existing national legislation, treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) and other laws connected to Internet use or its application.

Probing online IWT

SARAH Stoner, senior investigations manager at the Wildlife Justice Commission, an NGO that conducts an investigation to expose criminal networks in the illegal trade in wildlife, gave a glimpse of the group’s investigations of social-media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Often, Stoner said, buying and selling happen through the use of social media, with middlemen using fictitious accounts and posting photos of their “products” on Facebook or Instagram.

Making illegal wildlife traders harder to catch, illegal wildlife trade also happens in secret or closed groups created for the purpose.

Conducting undercover investigation through Operation Medusa launched in June 2016, the WJC developed intelligence and started gathering evidence on a criminal network dealing in extremely high volumes of raw ivory and rhino horn in Vietnam.

“The network comprises several individuals, all with distinct roles and responsibilities, easing the facilitation of products from a source site to market,” she said.

Some unscrupulous individuals in Vietnam were then considered to be significant players in the marketplace, where illegal trade is conducted in a commercial manner.

Working closely with the authorities, WJC was able to help capture a certain Nguyen Anh Son who was arrested with 14 rhino horns in his possession. The suspect later admitted to authorities having in his possession four more rhino horns.

Investigators estimate the total value of all eighteen horns to be more than $250,000 (about P13,152,500).

The suspect was eventually sent to prison with a sentence of 18-month jail term in January this year.

The group also provided intelligence that led to the seizure of 970 kilogram of raw ivory, which equates to 97 elephants, the largest seizure ever dealt with by wildlife law enforcement authorities.

An investigation conducted by WJC revealed that organized crime networks are learning to hide their identities, using third-party players, to make their financial transactions harder to trace.

She added that law enforcement agencies may not have the capacity to tackle such level of elusive criminal activities.

Combating online IWT

HAYSOM said social media can be a source of information and an entry point for investigations.

In fact, she said new tools are now being developed to help automate data collection and use digital methods to the advantage of wildlife crime fighters.

“The Internet is a powerful platform for communication for advocacy, consumer awareness and to spread the results of journalistic investigations,” she added. Haysom noted that more and younger generation of Internet users now have access to social-media platforms through smartphones.

Online marketplace appeal

RICARDO Forrester, crime analyst at USAID, in his presentation entitled, “A Snapshot of Illegal Online Wildlife Trade,” said illegal online wildlife trade also happens “openly” on other social-media platforms.

Conducting a six-week snapshot of the illegal wildlife trade happening online, Forrester said an investigative report of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a global nonprofit organization that protects animals and their habitats, revealed that 33,006 listed Cites wildlife and wildlife parts are for sale online and that there are around 9,482 advertisements online, with an estimated value of $10,708,137 (about P563,355,087.57).

The investigation only covered 16 countries and most, or 56 percent, of all the wildlife parts and products and live animals in the investigation were found on Chinese websites. About 32 percent of advertisements on these websites advertised the sale of ivory or suspected ivory. Around 2,509 advertisements were for reptiles, including turtles and tortoises, the second-highest category next to ivory.

Online wildlife trade, Forrester said, is highly appealing, because of several factors.

“There is no risk of stores being visited by law enforcement; because it is online, you don’t have to rent or open a store,” he said. “Why also pay for rent when they don’t need to?”

Traders also need not maintain records of their transactions, apparently avoiding taxes. Using aliases or fictitious accounts, these unscrupulous illegal wildlife traders avoid arrest.

Finally, the Internet allows them to have farther reach in the global markets, including expansion or having a new customer base in various parts of the world.

Social media appeal

OFTEN, advertisements in online marketplaces are also shared in social media, which even the younger generations are able to access.

What makes social-media use appealing is that unlike online marketplaces, traffickers do not pay sales fees, according to Forrester.

“Often, using closed groups, social media provide security in who you are dealing with,” he said.

Another tricky part in the use of social media is that it works on a referral-based system.

Social media, Forrester added, have the ability to market illegal wildlife worldwide, with traders creating fake or anonymous profiles using “throwaway” e-mail addresses.

Despite being banned by social-media platforms and online marketplaces, illegal online wildlife trade remains largely unregulated and wildlife laws difficult to enforce.

Some illegal wildlife trade players, according to Forrester, are now migrating, slowly, using the Dark Web, for greater protection against wildlife law enforcers that are now developing their capacity to identify those behind fictitious accounts, their location or place of operation.

“The future of the trade may be the Dark Web, making it even more difficult to enforce or regulate,” Forrester said.

But using the Dark Web has its disadvantage because of the fraud on advance fees happening and the shipment of products remains risky with law enforcers always on the lookout.

Enhancing police capacity

LAW enforcement agencies, according to Forrester, need to build individual and regional capacities to address the changing dynamics of online wildlife trade.

Salvatore Amato, who heads the law enforcement team of the Usaid Wildlife Asia, commented it is ironic that most governments in “range countries” where hunting of endangered animals is prohibited have no dedicated law enforcement units to go after wildlife criminals.

The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), with its 194 member-countries, is now stepping up to the challenge by helping enhance the capacity of various law enforcement agencies that seek its help, according to Marcos Mileo Brasil, criminal intelligence analyst of the Interpol Environmental Security-Project Leaf.

Brasil said that governments, upon request, will be provided technical training by Interpol to enhance their capacity to trace a suspect’s location and, possibly, identity, leading to a possible arrest.

Thailand’s initiatives

SOMKIAT Soontornpitakkool, director of the Division of Wild Fauna and Flora Protection, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation of Thailand, said there is an ongoing move in Thailand to amend existing laws and policies to regulate trade in wildlife and wildlife products and to intensify the campaign against illegal wildlife trade happening on the Internet.

In Thailand, 40 percent of the land areas are forested. Of that, 25 percent are protected areas while 15 percent are production areas.

There is no wildlife rescue center in Thailand but there are 25 breeding centers, where confiscated animals are kept temporarily.

According to Somkiat, there’s no “take policy” for endemic animals, although imported pets are allowed.

Two laws or policies exist in Thailand, he said, one for protected areas and the other for animals outside the protected area.

“We will amend the law to regulate exotic species in Thailand,” Somkiat said.

Through an interpreter, Thiradej Palasuwan, head of Thailand’s Wildlife Protection Division and head of Forest Hawks special operation team, said amending existing laws and policies will boost the campaign against illegal wildlife trade, particularly in the pet trade.

In Thailand, where trading of certain wildlife or wildlife products happens, particularly those classified as “exotic,” which are usually imported, law enforcers are having a hard time distinguishing legal from illegal transactions.

Also posting advertisements on Facebook pertaining to the sale of wildlife or wildlife is not against the law, thereby encouraging the buying and selling of wild-caught animals or their products.

“Those engaged in trading animals are getting younger and younger. As young as those who have [cellular phones] are now buying animals,” Palasuwan said.

Thai breeding, rescue center

DURING a tour at the Bang Pra Waterbird Breeding Center in Chonburi Province on November 9, journalists were briefed of the extent of the problem on illegal wildlife trade.

One of 25 breeding centers, the Bang Pra Waterbird Breeding Center is where some of the confiscated species are being temporarily kept. Only native species that are healthy are being released back into the wild.

Established in 1992, the center collects and breed native species of waterbirds for conservation.

There were currently a total of 1,005 animals in the park, 68 percent or 683, are breeders, while the rest are confiscated. These include rare primates, exotic snakes, tortoise, lizards and birds.

Chayanid Prasanwong, the center’s lone veterinarian, said the facility is also used to treat animals that are injured during transit.

Borderless crime

TRAFFICKING wildlife knows no borders today, no thanks to Internet technology as buyers and sellers from across the globe are now connected and are able to transact business clandestinely using fictitious social-media accounts.

Prasanwong said most animals brought in by authorities at the center were seized during an attempt to smuggle them out of Thailand.

Tortoise and lizards, particularly green Iguana, are being smuggled out of Thailand to countries like India.

On the other hand, exotic bird species from as far as Paraguay, Brazil and other countries in Central America, with some from Indonesia, have been confiscated.

“Even eggs are being smuggled in or out,” Prasanwong said. “Some animals are so young, some are adult, but mostly they are in poor condition.”

Most of the trafficked animals die while in transit, she said, and even those that survived and brought in at the centers eventually die, because of stress, citing the case of over 300 tortoises that were rescued years back. Very few of them managed to stay alive at the center’s care.

According to Salvatore, an experienced wildlife law enforcer, illegal wildlife trade today has no known borders.

Even African elephant tusks and rhino horns reach China, Vietnam and Thailand.

Wildlife law enforcers, he suggests, should give more focus or attention on most traded wildlife and wildlife products that are on the brink of extinction to help save the species.

Some countries, like the Philippines, should not let their guard down because illegal wildlife traders often find ways to smuggle in and out highly expensive animals or animal products, dead or alive, according to experts.

PHL: IWT hub?

BUYING and selling of wild-caught or harvested plant and animals remain a problem in the Philippines despite the all-out war against illegal wildlife trade.

Through the Philippine Operations Group on Ivory (Pogi) and Illegal Wildlife Trade, also known as Task Force Pogi, the government was able to score big in terms of seizure of illegally traded wildlife and wildlife parts or products.

According to the DENR-BMB brochure titled “Addressing the Illegal Wildlife Trade in the Philippines,” between 1996 and 2009, five tons of ivory elephant tusks were confiscated by authorities.

From 2000 to 2006, a total of 1,522 mynas and 652 blue-naped parrots were rescued.

In 2012 and 2013, authorities also scored big in the campaign against illegal trade of pangolins. A total of 95 kilos of pangolin scales and 36 kilos of pangolin meat equivalent to approximately 200 animals were seized in 2012 alone. The following year, 2,870 dead pangolins were seized. In 2014, a total of 354 marine turtles, dead and alive, were recovered. In 2015, a total of 4,300 freshwater turtles, 4,000 of which are the endemic Philippine forest turtles, were seized.

Between 2013 and 2017, 462 Indonesian endemic parrots were seized by authorities. In 2017, intensifying the campaign against illegal wildlife trade, 58 pangolins, 70 hawksbill turtles, 58 Goffin’s cockatoos and nearly 1,000 endemic pitcher plants and Lady Slipper orchids were recovered.

This year, authorities rescued 106 Sulfur-crested cockatoos so far.

The document identified the most traded species in the Philippines namely Philippine forest turtles, Palawan pangolin, Hawksbill turtle, Blue-naped parrot, Southeast Asian box turtle, Hill mynah, Asian leaf turtle and Tockay gecko.

Based on confiscation data, major poaching sites in the Philippines are Coron, El Nido, Taytay, Narra, Quezon, Rizal, Half Moon Shoal, Balabac Major Turtle Islands, Mapun, Agusan del Norte, Bukidnon, Aurora, Samar, Leyte and Bohol.

IWT road map

TO help curb illegal wildlife trade in the Philippines, the DENR recently completed the 10-year national Wildlife Law Enforcement Action Plan (WildLEAP) 2018-2028. The plan is alighted with the Philippine Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan and serves as the national road map to address wildlife crimes and guide to prioritizing enforcement activities.

WildLEAP focuses on stronger policies, networking and coordination, building capacity, communication, education and public awareness and improving governance and curbing corruption.

During the Forum on Combating Wildlife Trafficking held at Crowne Plaza Manila Galleria, Ortigas Center, in June this year, 11 law enforcement agencies and organizations expressed their support behind the plan.

They are the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (Nica), National Bureau of Investigation-Environmental Crime Division, Philippine National Police Maritime Group, Zoological Society of London-Philippines, Haribon Foundation; UNDP GEF Small Grants Program, Forest Foundation Philippines; Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape Project, GIZ-Philippines; Conservation International-Philippines; US Embassy-Manila; and Conservation International.

High optimism

WHILE admitting more needs to be done to fight global illegal wildlife trade, DENR officials are optimistic.

DENR-BMB Wildlife Resource Chief and Task Force Pogi point-person Josefina de Leon said they are always on the lookout not only for those attempting to use the country’s port as transit point of illegally traded elephant tusks but also rhino horns and products from tigers, pangolins and other critically endangered species listed under Cites and the “Red List of Threatened Species” of the Internal Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In fact, in January this year, the DENR-BMB sought custody of six rhino horns confiscated by the Bureau of Customs (BOC) in 2016 to ensure that they are properly disposed of. Most of these confiscated items like elephant tusks are returned, if not destroyed, by the DENR-BMB to demonstrate its resolve against trade in wildlife and wildlife parts.

DENR-BMB Director Crisanta Marlene Rodriguez told the BusinessMirror that despite funding problems, fighting wildlife crimes is getting the much-needed boost from various law enforcement agencies like the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Funding for the campaign against illegal wildlife crime, she admits, comes from the DENR’s regular budget and, except for Task Force Pogi, there are no law enforcement units dedicated to monitoring the Internet to curb the buying and selling of wildlife.

“Just last month, one of our law enforcers went to Bangkok for a training to enhance our capacity in combating online illegal wildlife trade,” she said.

Rodriguez added the DENR-BMB scored big in October by causing the conviction of two wildlife traffickers.

“As far as fighting illegal wildlife trade is concerned, we are not lagging behind and we continue to enhance our capacity,” she added.

DENR Undersecretary Benny Antiporda said while the full force of the DENR is focused on Boracay and other tourism areas for the moment, illegal wildlife trade is on their radar.

Antiporda admitted that some buyers and sellers are cunningly using Facebook to hide their identities to avoid law enforcement in doing their illegal transaction.

He claims the DENR is now monitoring social media and has recently allowed a team to have special access to Facebook, to monitor suspicious transactions involving wild-caught plants or animal species and their byproducts.

“Before the end of the year, we will launch a big operation. Wait and see. We are just busy right now. To those involved in illegal wildlife trade, this is a fair warning,” he said. “As long as you are in our country, as long as you are here in our territory, we can get to you. We will get you.”

Image Credits: Claudio Landi, Global Initiative

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