The world’s endangered wildlife is for sale on the world wide web: live tigers, bears, orangutans and chimpanzees are all just a few clicks away. For those seeking a more manageable purchase, there are emerald boas, hummingbirds or poison dart frogs available by the dozen.
The trade in animal products is just as vigorous. Ivory dominates, but also on offer are polar bear rugs, snow leopards’ teeth and a £55,000 cup fashioned from a rhino’s horn.
The extent of the shadowy online trade in protected animals is revealed on Tuesday in the most comprehensive analysis of the multi-million-pound market yet published. The International Fund for Animal Welfare worked with law enforcement professionals to analyse the online trade in 16 target countries over a six week period earlier in 2014. They found over 33,000 animals and items that should be protected by international laws on sale at a total value of m (£7m). Many of the online adverts identified are now being investigated by police.
“As poaching reaches alarming levels, wildlife cybercrime poses a sinister, silent threat to endangered species, enabling criminals to go about their grisly business with anonymity,” said Azzedine Downes, president and chief executive of IFAW.
Wildlife crime is estimated to be worth bn a year, making it the fourth most lucrative illegal trade after drugs, counterfeit goods and human trafficking. It has been increasingly linked to organised crime, terrorism and militias and Ban Ki-moon has warned the UN security council of the threat it poses to global security.
The UK had the fourth highest number of online adverts for protected wildlife, after China, Germany and France, with British adverts including birds of prey, monkeys and a hyacinth macaw offered for £15,000.
“Wildlife crime can seem like a remote problem but the internet brings it into everyone’s home,” said Philip Mansbridge, IFAW’s UK director. He said the report, while wide-ranging, exposed only a fraction of wildlife cybercrime. “If you think about all the countries in the world where people are using the internet, then it is obvious the scale of the trade is mind-blowing”
To compile the report, IFAW’s experts scoured openly accessible websites in 16 countries and found almost 10,000 adverts on 280 sites in the six-week study period. They focused on the most seriously endangered species, for which international trade is forbidden under Appendix One of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Some species on Appendix Two, for which export permits must obtained, were also included if law-breaking was suspected.
The team found a menagerie of wildlife for sale, both dead and alive. The highest number of adverts for large, live animals were found in Russia and Ukraine, even after investigators had been careful to exclude scams aimed at tricking money from potential buyers. The Russian adverts included orangutans and chimpanzees for sale, starting at ,000, as well as tigers, leopards, jaguars and a “toilet-trained” gorilla. The Ukraine sites offered live crocodiles, Asian black bears and an extremely rare bridled nail-tail wallaby. Sites in the Middle East also offered live animals, including cheetahs at ,000 and exotic gazelles and antelopes.
Overall, ivory was the most commonly touted product in the online adverts, accounting for almost a third. “An elephant is killed now every 15 minutes. It is incredibly disturbing,” said Mansbridge. “The scale of wildlife crime has reached unprecedented levels.”
Ivory items comprised 80% of the adverts found on Chinese websites, including one carving being sold at ,000. Other Chinese ads touted rhinoceros items for sale as well as tiger bone wine. Rhino poaching in South Africa has reached an all-time high this year, with 1,020 animals already killed.
Ivory was also the most commonly touted item in the UK. Investigators found 406 suspected ivory items, of which 376 were on eBay. This represents a 50% increase since the last IFAW study in 2008, despite the online auction company banning such sales that year.
Wolfgang Weber, an eBay director, said: “Acting on information from IFAW and other organisations, we have been able to put new measures in place to prevent sellers from listing items of concern on the site. In order to even better address this issue we will apply stricter sanctions against sellers who intentionally circumvent our enforcement.”
After ivory, reptiles were the next most common category of advert (26%) around the world, offering turtles, tortoises and lizards to collectors. Turtles and tortoises accounted for 70% of German adverts, including a critically endangered Egyptian tortoise. The north-German city of Hamm is an international hub for the reptile trade.
A report next month from German NGO Pro Wildlife will criticise the EU for enabling trade in species that are fully protected in their home nations such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Guatemala. “Professional reptile smugglers specialise in such species, because this dirty business promises maximum profit at minimum risk,” said Sandra Altherr of Pro Wildlife. “Currently sought after are Borneo earless monitor lizards at €8,000 per pair.”
A wide range of poison dart frogs made up 30% of all advertisements in the Netherlands, including phantasmal poison frogs and strawberry poison dart frogs. As with almost all the adverts investigated in the IFAW study, virtually none made any reference to the legality of their items and none provided legal documentation.
Adverts for birds were also common around the world (23%), ranging from birds of prey to parrots and including 100 owls for sale in the UK alone.
Mansbridge said a key recommendation of the IFAW report was to appoint wildlife cybercrime officers to national crime units. The UK had such a post but it was lost due to budget cuts and the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit only has funding until 2016. A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The government is committed to tackling illegal trade in wildlife products, which is why we have designed a £10m package over four years to reduce demand, strengthen law enforcement, and develop sustainable livelihoods for communities that have been affected by it.”
“It is also why earlier this year the UK hosted the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference where 40 countries agreed at the highest political level on practical steps to eradicate this global trade, including in rhino horn, ivory and tiger parts.”
• This article was amended on 25 November 2014 to correct a reference to the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s UK director, Philip Mansbridge.
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