Social Media Platforms Hotbeds for Wildlife Trafficking

The majority of illegal wildlife trafficking occurs on social media platforms, according to testimony given in a House committee hearing Tuesday.

An Interpol seizure of ivory. (Interpol via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In March, a man from Texas was sentenced to 20 months in prison for smuggling more than $8.4 million in protected wildlife from Mexico to the United States.

Every transaction occurred on Facebook. 

Illegal wildlife trafficking is no longer underground. Rhino horns, elephant ivory tusks, tiger bones, pangolin scales and live animals are being overwhelmingly sold in a lucrative and shockingly open criminal economy on social media platforms. Over 70% of the illegal cheetah trade occurs on Instagram. 

“The world’s largest markets for wildlife crime are right inside your smartphones,” Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime, told members of the House Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee in a hearing Tuesday afternoon. 

There’s been a decrease of over 100,000 African elephants over the past few years, and with only 400,000 left in the wild, the species is rapidly dwindling. There’s only 25,000 rhinos left in the wild and 1,200 to 1,500 are poached each year. 

“These animals can’t sustain this kind of pressure,” said Stephen Guertin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy director for policy. 

The subcommittee discussed ways to thwart the $23 billion a year economy, which has become, paradoxically, more difficult to regulate since it has moved out into the open. 

“A simple search of social media sites illustrates the significant volume of wildlife being openly offered for sale,” Guertin said. “The total volume of the illegal trade of wildlife and wildlife products via online platforms is difficult to quantify because law enforcement does not have visibility on encrypted apps and closed groups on social media sites.”

Peters says illegal wildlife trafficking has moved to online media platforms for a number of reasons: social media has the same anonymity as the dark web but has a far greater reach, algorithms help connect criminals, outdated laws provide immunity to tech firms and this immunity gives them little incentive to block illicit content. 

But, simply shutting down an online marketplace won’t stop the problem, as online sellers will create a new group, post or profile. Guertin said that there needs to be widespread international efforts to tackle the industry’s online presence as well as target the source of the trafficking. 

They also need cooperation from Facebook, he said, which declined to testify at the hearing. 

“We want to work with them proactively and behind the scenes,” Guertin said. “We don’t always want to go through a law enforcement request or subpoena.” 

E-commerice company eBay has proactively worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service and significantly reduced the volume of suspected illegal wildlife sales going through their platform. But, Facebook has yet to engage in a partnership with the agency, according to the testimony Tuesday

“We are disappointed they declined our invitation,” said Representative Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California and chair of the subcommittee. “Facebook said they’ll not take independent action to halt the trade.”

Huffman went on to describe how the sale of ivory products on Facebook has increased nearly 50% since 2016. Since 2018, wildlife trade on Facebook has increased in every country in Southeast Asia, and land grabbers are illegally selling stolen parcels of land in the Amazon.  

“Our hearing is virtual today because we find ourselves still battling a global pandemic,” Huffman said. “Ironically, that pandemic stems from zoonotic disease and the trade in wildlife.”

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