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12th February 2018

Facebook as a platform for cyber poaching

As the world’s largest social media site reached two billion members in 2017, concerns rise surrounding its use for illegal wildlife trading
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Facebook as a platform for cyber poaching
Photo: Dan Bennett @ Wikimedia Commons

A recently-published paper by non-government organization TRAFFIC has revealed that Facebook is increasingly being used for the unregulated selling of bred and captured birds and reptiles in the Philippines.

Founded in 1976, TRAFFIC is the Cambridge-based strategic arm of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It monitors trade of plants and animals for the mitigation of the loss of biodiversity.

The group monitored twenty online forums specializing in the trading of live pets for 17 days in February 2017. They recorded more than 700 advertisements amounting to approximately $150,000 (£107,000). These included animals like the white cockatoo, Philippine hawk-eagle and the radiated tortoise, all classified by the IUCN as either endangered or critically endangered.

Although the IUCN classified the majority of the marked animals as ones of least concern, the researchers highlighted that photos posted by the sellers showed animals in poor captive conditions and oftentimes misidentified.

Some traders also reported smuggling wildlife outside the country using courier services like FedEx, despite not having any importation permits issued by the government’s Biodiversity Management Bureau.

In addition, because most of the traded animals were non-native to the country, it is feared that their unrestricted breeding could interfere with native species and contribute to the spread of animal-borne diseases like avian influenza.

Unfortunately, because of the difficulty in implementation of the country’s 2001 Wildlife Act, only six arrests were made concerning online wildlife trading in the country from May to July of last year.

The report goes on to recommend more concerted efforts between law enforcement agencies, conservation scientists and civil society. The IUCN also suggested reporting such Facebook posts to curtail their spread. Though this may still prove challenging, as sellers can employ virtual private networks to hide their location, making an arrest even more difficult.

This is, however, not the first time such an occurrence was reported. In 2016, TRAFFIC discovered that 62 per cent of online exotic pet ads in Vietnam “potentially offered commodities illegally”, including leopard cats, the endangered Seychelles magpie-robin and green peafowl.

Rhinoceros horns, ivory tusks and elephant tails were also for sale.  In Malaysia, 86 per cent of Facebook included internationally-regulated species like the sun bear, orangutan and white-handed gibbon.

Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines have been classified as biodiversity hotspots by ecologists, containing the greatest density of flora and fauna on earth, making them viable targets for the export of exotic pets.

This, compounded with the consideration that there is more than a 50 per cent penetration of the social networking site within their populations, only increases concern over such practices. Overall, the three developing countries account for ten percent of Facebook internet traffic in Asia.

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