Illegal wildlife trade goes high-tech

It is a huge thriving market, but buyers and sellers no longer have to congregate in one place, haggling in the sweltering heat of the sun or squeezed under a humid plastic roof to escape a pounding rain.

Instead, today’s illegal wildlife market is right there in the comfort of your living room or bedroom. It goes wherever you go, because the illegal wildlife trade is now part of the booming e-commerce scene in Myanmar, on your laptop, tablet or smartphone.

A page advertising the sale of protected and endangered species recently cropped up on the social media giant Facebook.

Two months ago, a check of the site showed pangolins for sale, different sizes of leopards, monkeys, bears, and birds of prey.

The Facebook page lists the names of the species of wild animals and animal parts along with prices and contact numbers. Those who want to buy these animals or parts could call a number, join a chat, or post comments.

Leopards were available for K150,000 (US$100) in the online market, birds of prey cost around K20,000, and turtles and monkeys went for as little as a few thousand.

Wildlife traders appear to have abandoned selling their illegal goods in their traditional markets, as the government has intensified its crackdown on the illegal trade.

The remaining wildlife markets can now be found on the Chinese border, which is beyond the government’s control.

U Aung Kyaw, anti-wildlife trafficking manager at the Wildlife Conservation Society of Myanmar (WCS-Myanmar), said the online wildlife trade seems to be on the rise in the country.

“Various wildlife species are for sale online,” he said.

Wildlife traders are especially fond of social media sites, such as Facebook, according to an official of the Natural Environment and Wildlife Conservation of Forestry Department.

He admitted that the government does not have enough resources to go after these illegal online traders, who are hard to track down because their Facebook accounts are fake.

“The Forestry Department mainly takes action against the trading of wildlife and body parts in cooperation with other agencies and non-governmental organisations,” the official said.

The department noticed as far back as 2011 that there were a couple of Facebook pages selling wild animals or body parts, but it was only in the past few years that the practice had become widespread.

“When we tried to take action against someone who was trading online in 2017 that person suddenly disappeared for three or four months,” said U Aung Kyaw. “The trading is done now via chat, so we can’t trace the accounts.”

WCS Myanmar, the Forestry Department, and other agencies, including the police, are cooperating to eliminate the illegal wildlife trade, despite what seems like insurmountable odds.

“The department and WCS Myanmar are unable to handle this alone,” U Aung Kyaw said. “We need the help of cybercrime experts. We plan to eliminate the online trade, but it cannot be implemented yet. We need technicians and experts, but we are trying our best.”

In the past nine years, the department has prosecuted 12 suspected illegal online wildlife traders. Some were successful, others were not.

U Aung Kyaw said the massive technological change brought about by the internet has created a big opportunity for illegal wildlife traders to evade law enforcement authorities.

He said the online wildlife trade is rampant not only in Myanmar but also in Thailand, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

He said that in these countries, law enforcement authorities have begun to crack down on the illegal trade, which causes the depletion and near extinction of wildlife around the world.

“A cybercrime police force must be established,” he said, and the country needs to come up with comprehensive cybercrime laws.

Conservationists fear the illegal online trade could worsen the threat against wildlife.

In a statement, Facebook said it does not condone the trading of wildlife on its platform.

“Facebook does not allow the sale or trade of endangered species or their parts, and we remove this material as soon as we become aware of it,” the company said in an email. “We are committed to working with law enforcement authorities to help tackle the illegal online trade of wildlife around the world.” – Translated

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