Uncovering the web of illegal wildlife traders operating on social media

During a joint operation when several law enforcement agencies in India together raided a house in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya, they knew exactly what they would find. Four live pangolins, over 44 kg of pangolin scales, 43 dead tokay geckos and two elephant tusks.

It culminated in the arrest of eight people who were detained under different sections of the Wildlife Protection Act of India. But the investigation in this expose began from an unlikely place. The internet.

About six months before, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), an NGO working for wildlife conservation in the country had begun an operation under which they started monitoring the illegal wildlife trade on different YouTube channels.

“We found about 19 YouTube channels that uploaded a total of 50 videos about pangolin scales and live pangolin,” Jose Louies, deputy director and chief of the Wildlife Crime Control Division at WTI tells The Independent. “There were several phone numbers posted on these channels which belonged to countries from Indonesia, Iraq, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.”

Using what Mr Louies described as an “easy intelligence gathering” method, his team started posting their number in the comments section of these YouTube channels, requesting for pangolin scales. “We then waited out for the contact to be made,” he said. “In March, my team received a message over WhatsApp. We were contacted on the number that we had posted there.”

“I have pangolin,” said the message from an unknown WhatsApp number with India’s country code. Along with the message, the sender shared a 30-second long video. “We had to be sure that it is actionable intelligence. And not someone who is just forwarding someone else’s forward or a video from the internet,” said Mr Louies.

“Your demand bro,” asked the person from the other end. To test their potential, WTI in turn asked them how much they can supply. Once the trader revealed that he could provide as much as they wanted, WTI contacted the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), the apex law enforcement body, probing the illegal wildlife trade in the country and then started developing the undercover operation that eventually led to the arrest of eight people.

It is illegal to sell and purchase animals protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of India. “Though the law does not categorically cover the social media platforms, e-commerce websites and private websites, the sale and purchase of the protected species are still, however, covered under the Wildlife Protection Act,” HV Girisha, an Indian Forest Service officer and deputy director for the WCCB, tells The Independent.

“The internet is turning into a hub of illegal wildlife trade,” he laments. “And it is increasingly difficult to get the social media giants to coordinate or aid us in the investigation. They may not always share the information or there may be a time lag in the response period.”

While the enforcement agencies in past have turned to YouTube and issued them notice following which the videos were taken down, they did not turn to the Google-owned video-sharing platform in this particular probe, Mr Girisha said.

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For traffickers engaging in the illegal wildlife trade of animals on the internet, social media companies act as an enabler, argues Mr Louies. “These companies allow the traffickers to use their platform to market their goods, connect with other buyers and conduct the business. In other words, they act as a marketplace.”

But to get cooperation from these internet giants in doing law enforcement intervention to disrupt this marketplace has been difficult globally, shares Daniel Stiles, a wildlife conservationist based out of Kenya. “Up until now, they have refused to do that,” he tells The Independent. “The most they will do is remove or close the account.”

This, he says, is futile because the trafficker opens a new account under a new name and carries on with his business. “Shutting down the account does not stop anything. All it does is interfere with the ongoing investigations.”

Mr Stiles, who monitors the sale and purchase of primates on the internet, says: “Because we have been following these guys and they lead you to the big traffickers. They further lead you to who the big buyers are. It’s a very long process. It’s a very labour and time-intensive process. It takes a long time to go through all the friends, all the followers and the posts to develop leads on who are the traffickers.”

Wildlife activists also believe that social media platforms can do more to curb the illegal trade of animals on social media platforms. “If they really want to stop the illegal trade, all they need to do is find one or two keywords and put an algorithm on them,” says Mr Louies.

“If you put a video on YouTube with audio which is not copyright free, within two minutes of uploading the video, you’ll get a notification which says that the video is copyrighted. This means they have a mechanism to find copyrighted audio. Then why can’t they develop algorithms to help in curb the illegal wildlife trade,” he asks. “They have done that for sensitive political and social issues.”

He says that the platforms can develop bots that can notify a post as against their policy and then not allow the post to be made. “If I want to post something about pangolin scales and if Facebook or YouTube does not allow me to publish them, then my ability to network will be disrupted. The platform is not facilitating the trade.”

This method of using algorithms and blocking certain keywords has led to a decline in the sale of protected species, their parts and products on Indian trade portals, Mr Girisha said. Beforehand, the sale of sea cucumber, turtles, tortoise, snakes and their venom, tiger and leopard parts and monitor lizard was rampant, he says. In fact, monitor lizard penises from India were sold as Hatha Jodi, a rare plant part said to be having magical properties. The reptile, which helps in controlling insect and rodent populations, is protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. This means, their trade can invite a minimum of three years of imprisonment extendable to seven years.

“These elements were appearing on these trade portals on a regular basis. But slowly, after we started sharing keywords, the companies started putting filters. Now, they do not appear on the trade portals. Social media can also do the same,” Mr Girisha added.

However, the social media algorithms can also help in connecting would-be buyers with closed social media groups involved in the sale and purchase of animals, weapons, women, antiquities, argues Patricia Tricorache, a member of ACCO, the Alliance to Counter Crime Online and an illegal wildlife trade expert who monitors cheetah cubs appearing on social media.

“These companies have to have some liability when it comes to all the illegal stuff going on on their platforms. Because they allow drugs to be sold, they allow the sale of women, weapons, wildlife, antiquities. And not only that, but in the cases where there are private groups offering these things, they actually pop up [with suggestions that] you might like this other group, too,” Ms Tricorache tells The Independent. “So they are directing you to other possible illegal activities. They are just trying to monetise everything.”

A 2020 study by ACCO found that of the pages selling illegal wildlife products, about a third were found using Facebook’s own “related pages” features which recommended pages similar to one a user has visited or “liked”.

Facebook policy prohibits content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, donate, gift or solicit endangered species or their parts. The company explicitly prohibits the trade in species listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The ACCO research also found Facebook inconsistently applies this policy across different languages. During the six-month study which ran from March 2020 through September 2020, roughly 59 per cent English-language pages involved in wildlife-sale were removed. However, the study found that only 2.2 per cent of the 93 pages identified in Arabic, 2 per cent of the 49 Indonesian-language pages and 10.2 per cent of the 108 Vietnamese language pages involved in the sale of wildlife animals were taken down.

“We do not allow the sale of animals on Facebook or Instagram and we prohibit content and ads attempting to trade endangered animals,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “In addition to proactive detection, we partner with wildlife experts and law enforcement agencies around the world to help tackle the illegal trade of wildlife. We continue to invest to improve the enforcement of our policies,” the spokesperson added in response to a series of questions posed by The Independent. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Facebook does also have success stories to tell. The US-based giant collaborated with a biodiversity conservation group, TRAFFIC in Indonesia and the Philippines to remove more 1,900 groups involved in the trade of illegal wildlife products from its platform between January and May 2021.

In 2018, Facebook alongside Google and 19 other major tech firms joined the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, pledging to remove about 80 per cent of wildlife trafficking content from their platforms. This international effort and coordination between tech giants has yielded some positive results. As of March 2020, the coalition reported removing or blocking more than 3 million listings for endangered and threatened species and associated products from their online platforms, according to a report by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Matt Morley, Director of IFAW’s Wildlife Crime Program, says that the goal of such action is “to disrupt the trade” making it difficult for advertisers to trade openly because it is “unrealistic” to aim for complete elimination of the illegal wildlife trade on the internet.

“The sheer volume of listings/adverts and groups makes it impossible for even the best law enforcement to adequately investigate even a small percentage of postings,” he tells The Independent. “Where there is evidence of systematic violation of the law and opportunities for investigation, posts can be, and are left up during the lifetime of an investigation, this is arranged between the agencies and the companies. Again, the goal is not elimination of trade, this is unrealistic. While the legal framework, agency capacity and political will to take wildlife crime more seriously catches up, the goal is disruption.”

For effective intervention on the internet, Mr Morley suggests that there needs to be better coordination between law enforcement agencies and the tech giants, along with a need for better international law enforcement cooperation. “We’re fighting 21st Century crime with 20th Century laws and policing structures,” he says as he elaborates on jurisdictional issues around wildlife crime, with parties spread across the globe and being subjected to different laws.

“The CITES restricts international wildlife trade by way of a system of permits for species listed on the Convention’s appendices based on their level of endangerment in the wild,” he continues. “CITES does not regulate domestic trade, although countries may do so through their own national legislation.”

“Items sold over the internet often lack any CITES documentation, and jurisdictional issues can complicate the question of whether CITES restrictions apply to a particular sale,” he says. “The fact that these sales take place virtually rather than in person contributes to the difficulty in distinguishing legal from illegal in a more fundamental way as well. Because items listed for sale online are not examined in person, sellers can disguise a product as a different item, post blurry photos, or label a product ‘antique’ or ‘pre-ban’ to avoid legal interference.”

Ms Tricorache argues that the tech companies should take a more proactive role in curbing the trade. “Instead of just relying mostly on the users to report the illegal trade on their platforms, they should also deploy people to proactively monitor these things. They have plenty of money and resources to do that,” she says. Secondly, she argues companies need to work closely with the law enforcement agencies and not just delete accounts, which are potential evidence. Thirdly, she says, the tech giants should use their algorithms to educate users about the illegal nature of many of the posts they allow, similar to what they are doing with many political or Covid-related posts. “This can play a huge role in deterring the users from indulging in the illegal trade on the platform,” Ms Tricorache adds.

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