Disturbing $32 billion a year trade hiding online

Wildlife trafficking is flourishing online, a new report which looked into the sale of protected species has concluded.

Investigators scoured advertisements across 34 US-based internet marketplaces for six weeks, finding close to 1200 listings which were selling almost 2400 animal parts or derivatives of vulnerable animals.

The team worked to identify protected species specifically listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Left - an apartment block with colourful windows. Right - an aerial image of an African landscape.
Americans are ordering wildlife products in their homes (left) from unknown regions across the globe (likely to include Africa, like this area pictured right). Source: Getty

With the trade estimated to the be worth between $9.6 and 31.7 billion a year, the findings of the investigation were released this week by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) with a plea to online companies to do more.

IFAW found the internet’s “inherent anonymity” is allowing the illegal wildlife trade to prosper and that new regulations are needed to combat the activity.

"These findings are a clear indication that online wildlife trafficking remains highly active and a significant challenge in the US," IFAW’s Mark Hofberg said.

Wildlife facts that may surprise you

  • 37,000 plant and animal species are threatened with extinction (IUCN).

  • Pangolins are the world's most trafficked animal

  • Australia’s kangaroo “harvest” is the largest wild terrestrial slaughter in the world.

Ivory sales continue to flourish in US and Australia

Despite locals and UN protections against trading in endangered species, the taxidermic skins, skulls and claws of animals including giraffes, lions and primates continue to be sold freely.

Exotic pets, which researchers found draw a higher value, made up 19 per cent of the trade, with birds the most commonly listed creatures, followed by reptiles and mammals.

Ivory continues to dominate the marketplace and accounted for almost half of the online advertisements researchers found.

Left - a tiny monkey in a pink cage. Right - Rescued lion cubs.
Wildlife trafficking is depleting the numbers of thousands of species. Source: Getty / File Image

The news comes just days after online trade site Gumtree Australia was found to be littered with numerous advertisements offering ivory for sale, despite the company saying they do not allow it to be traded.

While Australia revealed two years ago it would ban the domestic ivory trade in Australia, critics say little has been done since Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced the intention to the world in Geneva.

IFAW have argued that while governments must implement online trade reforms to combat the issue, internet marketplaces must also adopt “clear, comprehensive, and enforceable” wildlife trade policies.

Their investigators found that only eight of the 1200 advertisements had supporting documentation claiming the sale of the item was legal, and many sellers simply said their items were legal without offering any proof.

“Unsuspecting buyers are unable to determine if what they are buying is legal or is contributing to the depletion of an imperilled species,” IFAW said in their report.

eBay, Etsy, Ruby Lane, and Offer Up, which are part of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online were notified of listings that breached their guidelines and the advertisements were removed.

Stories about elephants that need to be shared

More on the trade in wild animals

Key wildlife facts you may not know

  • Gorillas are the highest value animal on the live primate trafficking market.

  • Only 1000 mountain gorillas remain in the wild.

  • Australia’s Bramble Cay melomys is believed to be the first animal to become extinct due to climate change.

Wildlife trade risks human health

Vulnerable species are struggling to survive as habitat loss and climate change along with trafficking continue to destroy biodiversity across the globe.

High asking prices for many endangered animals is continuing to drive the trade, with many creatures found to be selling for between $13,000 and $34,000.

A hornbill bird in a cage in Indonesia that was rescued.
Exotic birds continue to be one of the most trafficked categories of wildlife. Source: Getty / File Image

The trade in exotic species has come under increasing scrutiny after the Covid-19 pandemic was linked to a physical market in Wuhan, China, selling live bats which may have caught the disease from pangolins.

It is just the latest in a string of diseases which humans have caught from wildlife as we continue to expand in numbers and venture into their habitat, with previous zoonotic infections including bird flu, SARS, and HIV.

While humankind's increasingly destructive impact on wildlife has done little to curb our desire to own, eat and wear animals that need to be protected, their unintended harm to us through disease could see regulators finally act and crack down on the trade.

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