Niche internet trade posing disease threat to Australia

Buying drugs derived from animals like the Colorado River toad could have a severe environmental impact.

It’s no surprise that wildlife is being traded on the dark web, but live animals only make up a fraction of listings examined over a five-year period. After analysing over 2 million advertisements, Australian researchers discovered most illegal flora and fauna is being sold in the form of illicit drugs.

While importing these products across borders without approval may seem benign, doing so could pose a disease threat to domestic animals and plants.

Researchers found over 3300 wildlife listings, 90 per cent of which offered chemicals extracted from animals, fungi and plants. They were sold alongside pornography and weapons, which made up the majority of advertisements.

A road cuts between suburban houses and a country house.
If Australians are buying illegal wildlife products on the dark web, they risk breaching Australia's biosecurity and impacting agriculture and the environment. Source: Getty

Researchers from the University of Adelaide found 153 species being traded across 50 sites, including the Colorado River toad which has glands that excrete psychoactive toxins. It is listed as endangered in its native range of New Mexico.

Quick facts the study revealed about the illicit wildlife trade:

  • The majority of listings were for plants and fungi.

  • Most plants were sold for use as recreational drugs, only a small amount were for medicine.

  • 68 species were verified as containing chemicals used as drugs.

  • 19 species of Psilocybe fungi were identified as being sold.

  • The most common item was jurema preta bark which contains an hallucinogen.

What’s the problem with buying wildlife products online?

In March, Yahoo News Australia reported on concerns the legal bat specimen market could pose a threat to both human and wildlife health, but the illicit trade has the potential to be even more harmful. Unlike bats which are treated with ionising radiation, illegal products come with no such assurance.

Published in the British Ecological Society journal People and Nature, this investigation sparked concerns about wildlife drugs threatening populations of some species in their natural environments. The report’s co-author Jacob Maher told Yahoo the illegal trade is of particular concern to plants and animals that are vulnerable to extinction.

“If something has an economic value, then we have to consider that maybe people will try to extract something of it from the wild,” he said.

Close up profile of a Colorado River toad.
The Colorado River toad's glands excrete a psychoactive substance. Source: Getty (File)

Illegally bringing wildlife products into Australia also risks harming native animals and plants as well as agriculture through disease. While trading live specimens on the dark web remains rare it poses a greater threat to biosecurity than the processed drug trade — even one misstep could result in plagues of invasive species entering the country’s fragile environment.

Is wildlife only being traded on the dark web?

The majority of wildlife is being sold on the marketplaces, messaging apps and forums listed on the open and deep web. For this reason, those behind the study believe law enforcement’s priority should not suddenly switch to the dark web.

“However, if conditions change in the future, and it becomes harder to sell wildlife openly online, then it remains plausible that a broader variety of wildlife will turn up on the dark web,” report lead-author Dr Phill Cassey said.

Do you have a story tip? Email:

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter and download the Yahoo News app from the App Store or Google Play.