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Wildlife trafficking found online in EU - reports

03 July 2020
by WWF -- last modified 03 July 2020

WWF and TRAFFIC are launching two reports related to the fight against wildlife cybercrime in the European Union. In the first study, researchers monitored social media and e-commerce websites focusing on the Belgian and Dutch markets for rare protected species of reptiles and birds between July and September 2019. They found more than 100 suspicious posts selling at least 93 bird and 94 reptile specimens in these two countries. The second report highlights potential technological solutions, such as data mining and machine learning software, to tackle wildlife cybercrime in the EU.


Wildlife trafficking online, the case of reptiles and birds in Belgium and the Netherlands

The first report – entitled Stop Wildlife Cybercrime in the EU – Online Trade in Reptiles and Birds in Belgium and the Netherlands – analyzed reptile and bird offers for sale online. The research focused on 26 reptile and bird species and 2 reptile genera protected under the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations. The trade of these species is considered highly likely to be illegal, based on their level of protection, rarity or past history in being trafficked. The EU is a major market for the exotic pet trade, both Belgium and the Netherlands play important roles in this commercial sector, in particular for birds and reptiles.

The researchers found 106 suspicious postings from 65 different sellers, a few of whom had public records of previous wildlife trafficking.

The most frequently encountered target bird species were Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) and Blue-throated Macaw (Ara glaucogularis) both native to Latin America. The top postings for reptiles included Williams' Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus williamsi), found only in a tiny range in Tanzania, and Chinese Crocodile Lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus), from China and Viet Nam. All are considered at risk of extinction in the wild.

The posts were mainly found on social media (25%) and wildlife specialist websites (50%). Just over 20% of posts were found on more general classified ads sites.

Most posts failed to provide adequate information proving that the reptiles and birds for sale were from a legal origin, such as appropriate CITES paperwork or appropriate marking (e.g. closed rings on birds). The large majority of the online platforms surveyed did not have clear guidance for users regarding wildlife trade legislation or a clear policy of steps being taken to curtail illegal wildlife trade from their platform.

A notable exception was Facebook, a member of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which brings together more than 30 of the leading online platforms worldwide as part of an industry-led commitment to curtail online wildlife trafficking.

"Online trafficking of wildlife threatens thousands of species and risks spreading zoonotic diseases, which can have devastating impacts on our society," said Emilie Van der Henst, Manager of the EU Wildlife Cybercrime Project and an author of the report. "Everyone, from individuals to governments to the private sector can help curtail online trafficking by ensuring online posts are legal and that any illegal activity is reported".

How technology can help fight wildlife cybercrime

The potential for technology to help is the subject of a second study, also released today—Tackling Wildlife Cybercrime in the EU: How technology can help.

The study presents a general assessment of technological solutions, such as software, that can help with monitoring and detecting suspicious wildlife trade activities online without resorting to time-consuming, labour-intensive manual data collection. It concludes that the major challenge in adopting such approaches is not the development of new tools but in the refinement of existing ones and the gathering of critical datasets to achieve scalable, reliable, systematic and repeatable ways to detect wildlife cybercrime automatically.

"The latest technology has the potential to be a game-changer in countering online wildlife trafficking, but it will necessitate a high degree of collaboration and coordination between relevant stakeholders, including police, customs, academia, NGOs, and the giant tech-companies," said Florian Debève, Project Officer for the EU Wildlife Cybercrime Project and author of the technology report.

Recommendations to authorities, online platforms and wildlife consumers

A set of recommendations emanate from both reports, among which the need for policy makers to explore legislative improvements on the conditions under which protected wildlife can be sold, advertised and purchased online; the need for enforcement authorities in the EU member states to be provided with the adequate capacity (human resources, tools and training) to fight wildlife cybercrime effectively; the need for online platforms to adopt policies to actively combat the use of their platforms to sell illegal wildlife; and finally the need for wildlife consumers to stop purchasing illegal wildlife.

The two reports are published under the banner of the EU Wildlife Cybercrime Project, an EU-funded initiative aimed at disrupting and deterring criminal networks trafficking wildlife in, or via, the EU using the internet and parcel delivery services. The project is coordinated by WWF and implemented in partnership with IFAW, INTERPOL, Belgian Customs and TRAFFIC (through in-kind support).

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