The East African
Maina Waruru,
December 30, 2018

Transnational criminal networks engaged in illegal wildlife trade have
increasingly shifted the multibillion-dollar business to online platforms,
including social media.

Physical markets have come under increased pressure from law enforcement
agencies across Africa and Asia.

Africa is the main source for the illegal trophies, largely from elephants,
rhinos, pangolins and tigers, while Asia is the main market.

However, few governments in both the source countries and the target
markets have the capacity to detect and disrupt the business, and even
fewer have the necessary laws to combat it, say international conservation
and law enforcement agencies.

The result, officials of the bodies among them Interpol say, is that more
wildlife and wildlife trophies are being trafficked from Africa to Asia
each year, endangering the threatened species, in a trade that is becoming
increasingly hard to detect.

“The Internet has provided traffickers and traders with greater visibility,
enabled them to reach a larger pool of consumers of illegal wildlife
products and increased opportunities for privacy,” said Simone Haysom,
senior crime analyst of the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against
Transnational Organised Crime.

The increased use of the Internet facilitates easier and faster exchange of
information between middlemen, retailers and consumers, she said.

“It may all start with a simple photo of an adorable animal posted on a
Facebook page, but this seemingly innocent post will bring together people
with common interests including enthusiasts and collectors,” the official
told a recent media workshop in Bangkok, Thailand.

According to Riccardo Forrester, a crime analyst at the United States
Agency for International Development (USAid)-Wildlife Asia, online trading
in illegal wildlife cushions the gangs against raids by law enforcers and
makes it easier to reach wider global markets.

“It also makes a lot of financial sense because trading online helps one
avoid taxation and any other form of regulation,” he said.

Salvatore Amato, a law enforcement specialist at USAid -Wildlife Asia, said
that wildlife crime must be treated as a crime and not as a conservation
issue.

“A holistic approach is needed to end the illicit trade that threatens the
survival of iconic African species,” said Mr Amato.

“Such an approach will not involve a blame-game between African and Asian
countries, but build enforcement capacity both at the source and the
market.”

Marcos Mileo Brasil, a global forestry crime intelligence analyst at
Interpol said that the enactment of relevant laws would disrupt the illicit
online trade in the species.

“Some criminal groups are using international policies and laws to continue
doing the business online, something that countries need to address
urgently,” said Mr Brasil.

The global police organisation he said, was helping member countries build
their capacity to disrupt and stop illicit markets in wildlife.

He said that Interpol through its ?green crime? initiative was gathering
intelligence on such crime, and sharing it with affected countries.

The initiative focuses on environmental crimes, by identifying trends,
anticipating and deterring the commission of crime.

Mode of Payments

Criminals, Mr Brasil said, were now shifting to crypto currencies such as
bitcoin as a medium of payment, making detection even harder.

“The use of crypto currencies and modern methods of payments such as
blockchain technology helps to hide the identities of people involved in
this business,” said Mr Brasil.

According to Sarah Stoner, a senior investigations manager at the
Hague-based, Wildlife Justice Commission, the capacity to combat
“digitally-enabled” wildlife crime remains low, and is partly enabled by
limited intelligence sharing as well as corruption in some countries.

The numbers of endangered wildlife getting killed each in year in Africa
remains unacceptably high, she said, giving the example of South Africa
where 1,215 rhinos were killed in 2014, and 1,054 in 2016, up from only 13
in 2007. She called for increased vigilance in both physical and cyber
markets.

“While the 2016 cases signalled a decrease from the highest figures
reported in 2014 of 1,215 poached rhinos, the levels are still significant
and leave little room for complacency,” said Ms Stoner.

An investigation targeting 51 suspects engaged in rhino horns trade between
Vietnam and China conducted between January and August 2016, notes that
1,061 kgs of rhinos were traded during the period.

The horns were believed to have been the result of the killing of between
401 and 579 rhinos and were valued at an estimated $42.7 million.

Thriving Business

An elaborate criminal enterprise was engaged in thriving business in the
horns across the Vietnam-China border, where s Chinese customers are
currently paying between $17,600 and $22,300 for a kilo of the horn, based
on prices received from different sellers in May and August 2017.

“The most valuable part of the horn is the tip, which weighs, at most,
approximately one kilo and is valued at between $25,000 and $30,000, due to
its shape; the tip is considered to hold greater artistic value,” Ms Stoner
disclosed.

Since its creation in 2015, the Wildlife Commission has been developing
tools for fighting the trade, including gathering social media intelligence.