Illegal sales of wildlife products are booming on the shadowy, hard-to-regulate web. But the world's largest convention on wildlife trade hopes to stop that by passing a landmark resolution aimed at that market.
Wildlife advocates say the agreement will make a huge dent in the illegal traffic of such products, adding that China has seen success through the cooperation of law enforcement, wildlife activists, and e-commerce and social media sites.
Anti-trafficking advocate Xu Ling offered a macabre list of what her team found in a recent online search for rare and illegal wildlife products.
"We've found tiger bone, tiger bone wine, tiger skin, the ivory, the tail, elephant tail and rhino horn," she told VOA during this year's meeting in Johannesburg of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The internet, she said, is a rabbit hole of illegal trade, because it offers anonymity and breaks down the traditional physical barriers that would make it hard to buy and sell illegal products.
Xu is the senior program manager of TRAFFIC, which tracks illegal wildlife trade and has monitored online retailers in China since 2012. Last year, the organization published a report that revealed that, at the peak of activity, as many as 4,000 new ads for illegal wildlife items were appearing monthly on Chinese websites.
This week, CITES members passed a Kenya-led resolution that the head of the organization praised as its first resolution on cybercrime. The organization's 183 members agreed to work closely with each other and with national and international law enforcement bodies to fight the online trade of wildlife products. They also agreed to consider funding a full-time position at Interpol that would focus on wildlife cybercrime.
"Basically what that's going to mean in practice is better law enforcement, more engagement with online marketplaces, and an opportunity to discuss changing the law and strengthening the law so it can really target wildlife cybercriminals," said Tania McCrea-Steele, Global Wildlife Cybercrime Project leader for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Xu says that law enforcement alone is not enough to fight cybercrime. TRAFFIC last year signed an agreement with Tencent, a massive Chinese internet service company, to work together to combat online trafficking. A Tencent official at the conference said the company has a zero-tolerance policy on wildlife trafficking.
Partnerships key, eBay says
International online retailer eBay banned all ivory sales in 2009 and says cooperation between internet platforms and law enforcement is essential.
"In our experience, these partnerships are the most powerful and effective means to achieve tangible and sustainable results," eBay global regulation head Wolfgang Weber told CITES conference attendees.
China has seen great success with this combination of industry collaboration and law enforcement's prosecution of online wildlife trafficking, Xu said.
"In China, it is very serious to sell the ivory and other endangered species in the online markets, as well as the physical markets," she said. "I can give you one example: This year, just in August, the Chinese forestry police detected a big online seizure, confiscated more than 200 kilograms of ivory and 17 kilograms of rhino horn. Actually, this seizure was detected as a result of joint efforts by forest police and Tencent, the social media platform, and TRAFFIC."
But, she said, the cybercriminals are wily, and every time one internet portal closes, another opens. Since the crackdown began, TRAFFIC found that sales of illegal wildlife products were moving off e-commerce sites and migrating to social media platforms.