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Although cyberspace is not the main platform for illegal wildlife trade, it provides an anonymous and versatile marketplace in which to buy and sell. It is safe to say that the internet plays a role at some point in an increasing number of wildlife trafficking incidents. By turning an eye towards innovative technology, law enforcement agencies are creating more effective ways of tracking down the people involved in these activities – often, by following the money trail. 

Rhino horns are among the most frequently illegally-traded commodities online. Poachers are chipping away at dwindling rhino populations to meet the demand for “medicinal” powder and artefacts made from their horns. In the past decade more than 7, 000 rhinos have been poached. Although research shows that ivory sales are decreasing online – this is likely explained by a number of sites having banned ivory sales on their platforms and having increased enforcement – some traders are still openly selling ivory online. This is often through the use of code words, particularly on sites prohibiting ivory trade such as eBay. 

In South Africa, there is very little actual illegal rhino horn trade online, according to Sade Moneron, a researcher at TRAFFIC. Mostly, she explains, “they appear to be scams”. Sometimes the seller does not even know where or how a piece came from and often, people do not know about having the correct documentation. 

However, demand is not local; mainly, it comes from places like China and Vietnam. In 2013 TRAFFIC conducted research that surveyed 720 individuals from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and “discovered that rhino horn users value this item because of its significance from a social point of view”. They identified the main users of rhino horn as men over the age of 40 and women in their 50s who are supplying their families. It is predominantly seen as a status symbol. In traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horns, composed primarily of keratin – a protein found in fingernails and hair – are thought to reduce fever and pain. 

Reptiles have become another popular commodity for sale online. In 2018 the International Fund for Animal Welfare recorded 11,772 endangered and threatened wildlife specimens offered for sale over a period of six weeks, via nearly 6,000 advertisements and posts on 106 online marketplaces and four social media platforms. They found that reptiles made up the largest group of animals for sale, with live tortoises and turtles representing 45% of all specimens. 

Although many e-commerce (e.g. eBay in the United Kingdom) and social media platforms (e.g. Facebook) have banned the sale of wildlife specimens protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), it is still easy to find almost anything you are looking for. Often, you can find ball pythons, Hermann’s tortoises and boa constrictors (all CITES Appendix I and II) on closed Facebook groups, with names like “Reptiles for sale in Europe”. 

Following the money is one way of attempting to disrupt digitally-enabled wildlife trafficking. This can, however, be difficult to do, with a wide variety of payment systems and varying levels of regulation around the world. Although many traders prefer to operate in cash, systems like Western Union which is not always easily traceable and WeChat Pay, which is integrated into the social-media channel, make tracking down perpetrators an even more complicated task.

Turning to technical innovations to solve the problem has become the leading approach by organisations like the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, Interpol and Rhino Coin. These include the creation of a tool that searches the Internet and identifies URLs where a commodity is being advertised for sale or talked about; interacting with sellers and buyers to try to better understand how these transactions really work, and trading legal rhino horn in the form of cryptocurrency to raise funds for anti-poaching efforts. 

In this investigation we look at how online illegal wildlife trade facilitates illicit financial flow; what interacting with traffickers is really like; what impact increased digitally-enabled trade has on grassroot, anti-poaching units and what role – if any – technical innovation is having on disrupting the market. This is a transnational investigation that links Africa, Europe and Asia, and incorporates the efforts of journalists from South Africa, Italy and China. 

*For their safety, the team member from Shanghai, China, has chosen to remain anonymous. They have several years of experience as an investigative environmental reporter in Asia and Africa.

The journalist is known to our funders, Journalismfund.eu.

This investigation was developed with the support of the Money Trail project. Editorial support was provided by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism.