Facebook’s illegal wildlife trade problem

Environmentalist group finds world’s largest social network has hundreds of protected animals available for illegal purchase

Only the extremely naive would believe the internet is never used for dubious activity. However, most would probably assume that the obviously illegal would be limited to the dark web rather than openly on the world’s largest social network.

That’s not the case. A new report from wildlife-monitoring network Traffic has discovered hundreds of protected and endangered species for sale across Malaysian Facebook groups, where users can buy the likes of binturongs, turtles, otters, gibbons and sun bears.  

“Although the findings are about illegal wildlife trade in Malaysia, we believe it reflects a worldwide problem,” explained Traffic’s Sarah Stoner. Indeed, the fact that such illegal trade is going on in Malaysia is particularly surprising, as the country does not have open wildlife markets. “The demand for these animals has always existed in Malaysia, but it's never really had an outlet to flourish, whereas the internet and Facebook seem to be providing that platform to enable the trade to happen in this manner,” said Stoner.

Traffic monitored 14 Facebook groups – most of them with a closed membership – for half an hour per day over five months. Over that period, they discovered 106 different sellers across 236 illegal posts. The group's cumulative membership was close to 68,000.

The problem isn’t a new one, with Peninsular Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) being aware of Facebook groups illegally trading since 2013. “Perhilitan has taken measures to address the problem, including working with other law enforcement agencies to stop the illegal trade of wildlife on Facebook. We have carried out 43 successful seizures, arrested at least 54 illegal traders and saved over 67 wildlife species from being traded illegally on Facebook,” explained Perhilitan’s Hasnan Yusop.

Traffic described Facebook as “responding positively” to the report, with a Facebook spokesperson saying, “We are committed to working with Traffic to help tackle the illegal online trade of wildlife in Malaysia. Facebook does not allow the sale and trade of endangered animals and we will not hesitate to remove any content that violates our Terms of Service.”

How wide a problem this is outside of Malaysia isn’t clear, but Stoner believes it’s a global problem that requires global solutions: “Social media’s ability to put traffickers in touch with many potential buyers quickly, cheaply and anonymously is of concern for threatened wildlife and enforcement agencies which demands nothing short of a concerted global response,” she said.

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Images: Tim Strater and TRAFFIC

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