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Crime & Justice

Illegal Wildlife Trade Booms on Chinese Social Media

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 4 2015 (IPS) - Despite a major online crackdown on the sale of illegal wildlife products in China, merchants are still peddling their wares in a thriving social media market.

TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring group, says “considerable quantities” of ivory, rhino horns, tiger and leopard bones, scales and more numbering in the thousands are being bought and sold each month on social media in China.

A new report ‘Moving targets: Tracking online sales of illegal wildlife products in China’ – released Tuesday, to coincide with World Wildlife Day – outlines monitoring of e-commerce websites and social media undertaken by TRAFFIC since 2006.

The report states that while trade on standard e-commerce and antiques sites has dropped off significantly, due to efforts by groups like TRAFFIC to alert website managers and enforcement agencies to the sale, trade through social media has grown and remains high.

“Despite the inherent difficulties in monitoring such trade, TRAFFIC’s research has revealed that considerable quantities of illegal wildlife products are bought through social media channels,” the report states.

Between January 2012 and early 2013, the number of advertisements for illegal wildlife products on surveyed websites fell from 30 000 to 10 000, and figures have remained steady since. At least 15 of China’s most-used e-commerce sites have publicly stated a zero-tolerance policy to illegal wildlife trade.

“Major online retailers in China have been important allies in efforts to stamp out illegal wildlife trade… yet the high number of such advertisements remains of concern and we are also seeing a shift in the way such transactions now take place,” said Zhou Fei, head of TRAFFIC’s China Office.

Through social media advertisements however, which TRAFFIC began tracking in March 2014, the trade has not been as effectively addressed.

The report stated that in one month monitoring on one social network, there were over 100 ivory tusks, 270 ivory segments, 80 rhino horns, 46 helmeted horn bill casques, and thousands of ivory items listed for sale.

“That is why it is imperative that researchers and enforcement agencies – as well as social media platform administrators – concentrate their efforts on monitoring and deterring illegal wildlife trade on social media,” the report recommended.

TRAFFIC conceded targeting social media trade was more difficult than trade on regular e-commerce sites. For one, audiences on social media can be limited greatly, to only those buyers that the dealer or merchant trusts; for another, code words for products are often used, and can be regularly altered, making it difficult for enforcement agencies to keep up.

“Progress in eliminating illegal online trade is hampered by the practicalities of blocking certain code words, while limited capacity means it is simply not possible to find and delete all offending advertisements in time,” the report warned.

“The speed with which online transactions can take place is also a major impediment, both to monitoring and to effective enforcement action.”

TRAFFIC’s recommendations include training courier companies to check cargo and recognise illegal wildlife products, and for social media companies to “share information about their client base” with “relevant law enforcement agencies.”

Follow Josh Butler on Twitter @JoshButler

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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