Social Media as a Facilitator of Illegal Wildlife Trade

Updated: Oct 13, 2021


In recent years, illicit money flows have emerged as a significant concern globally , especially in underdeveloped countries, as it threatens their economic security and stability. Accurate estimates of illegal cash flows are difficult to determine due to the secretive nature in which they take place. In 2014, Global Financial Integrity estimated that almost $1 trillion in illegal cash leaves emerging markets and developing nations every year (Tropina, 2016).

The increasing reliance of society on information and communication networks has altered the terrain of this issue in recent decades. Digital networks have emerged as a facilitator for new means of earning and transferring illegal funds. Being borderless and decentralized, the internet provides significant difficulties for governments, industries, and civil societies in combating illicit money flows. Since this problem is relatively new, there is still a lack of study on this issue (Tropina, 2016).


Nowadays, with the extensive availability of the internet, it is becoming increasingly common for people to buy groceries, electronics, clothes, and books online. However, they now also serve as both; a marketplace and a platform for encouraging illegal wildlife trade. Increased use of mobile devices and social media allows merchants to communicate directly with customers and coordinate with other participants in the supply chain 24/7. Even before transportation and payment are agreed upon, animals are promoted, typically through private, encrypted chat channels on social media. Hashtags and keywords are frequently used to improve the ad searchability for potential buyers (Bending, 2020).

Social Media and Illegal Wildlife Trade

Today, one can acquire anything from elephant tusks and rhino horns to cheetah pelts and pangolin scales in merely two clicks on social media. Social media platforms are being used as online trade grounds for illegal wildlife trade, with dealers and buyers worldwide being able to connect and coordinate in the comforts of their homes (Klein, 2021).

An estimated multibillion-dollar industry, illegal wildlife trade involves the illegitimate capture and trafficking of live animals and their parts like skin and products like leather goods, food, traditional medicine, or even as pets. Many species of animals are being pushed to extinction through illegal wildlife trafficking. Considering their scarcity and high economic value, endangered animals are often the focus of this trade. It can also affect a country's natural resources and local communities that would have otherwise profited from tourists or legal, sustainable trade (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, n.d.).

It was published in a recent research that a surge in social media activity between 2016 and 2018 may not only have led to a rise in otter popularity but may also have propagated misconceptions about their appropriateness as companions (Bending, 2020). On the internet, misinformation spreads rapidly. Rhino horn is still the subject of several misconceptions, ranging from the belief that it was widely used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine to its more recent promotion as a COVID-19 treatment on social media by vendors in China and Laos (Bending, 2020).

The Alliance to Counter Crime Online, on examining Facebook in the last two years for 17 frequent phrase combinations connected with the illegal wildlife trafficking in four languages - English, Arabic, Indonesian, and Vietnamese, identified nearly half of the 473 pages and 281 groups (i.e., almost 1.5 million people) as selling endangered species (Ebersole, 2021).

The illicit wildlife trade in Africa is believed to be worth more than $10 billion each year. For some of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the region, the begrudged ivory is a major source of funding. Consequently, the industry becomes a virtuous circle, with firearms enabling poaching and poaching enabling the following arms trade. Clearly, the harm posed by this illegal trade extends beyond animals; human lives are also being jeopardized in many ways (Sundar & Bunga, 2018).

There are many reasons why illegal wildlife trafficking has shifted to online social media platforms. First, social media offers sellers the same anonymity as the dark web, with an added advantage of having a far wider reach. The algorithms assist criminals to connect with each other as well as with potential buyers. Another advantage is that the outdated laws offer tech corporations protection, making them less likely to take any efforts to curb the growing illicit trade (Hawkins, 2021).

How Does It Work?

• Wildlife smugglers upload a photo of themselves or an item for sale.

• Interested individuals "like" the photograph or DM the trafficker

• The trafficker invites the user to a private, encrypted chat

• Payments are made either through the platform or through other systems.

• The product is delivered in person.

This is how simple it is to traffic wildlife or even other things like drugs and counterfeit products. The deals are frequently conducted openly, with no concealment (Alliance to Counter Crime online, n.d.)

Dealers, in order to be inconspicuous, use personal targeting instead of public ads to target people. Another tactic that they use is to describe the things they intend to sell using code phrases - elephant tusks are indicated as “white”, rhino horns are marked as “black”, helmeted hornbill beaks are referred as "red" and so on. This strategy used by sellers makes it extremely difficult for authorities to trace them down using algorithms (Sundar & Bunga, 2018).


As is the case with most law and governance concerns, there is a lack of coherence in action, with laws often being inadequately administered. In October 2017, the Hindustan Times reported that a Madhya Pradesh gang had smuggled 125 tigers and 1200 leopard’s parts. The punishment for selling close to 15 percent of the leopard population was merely a four-year prison sentence (Sundar & Bunga, 2018).

Another case can be seen in Texas, where a man was sentenced to just 20 months in jail in March 2021 for smuggling more than $8.4 million in protected wildlife from Mexico to the United States, with every transaction having taken place through Facebook (Hawkins, 2021).

The under-resourcing of law enforcement is a major issue that makes it difficult to take meaningful action against such illicit trade. Due to a lack of funding, it is difficult for police to tackle illicit wildlife trade among their top priorities. In many developing nations, which are the origins of this illicit trade, this problem is extreme. Also, cyberspace lacks strong regulations, enabling such trades to remain off the radar. On one side, there are a few voluntary initiatives and collaborations with tech firms, such as the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which have tried to address this issue. However, the still persistent sale of endangered species online highlights the limitations of voluntary action by the private sector and NGOs (Moreno et al., 2021).


However, it's not all bad news. Social media is also a powerful tool that can be used to promote a culture of respect and protection of animals. In the last few years, social media has offered people a place where they can mobilize people for united conservative efforts. But with many species becoming endangered and even close to extinction, there is a need for practical actions to be taken before time runs out (Bending, 2020).

We need better legislation that forces social media companies to change their algorithms to detect illegal trades instead of facilitating them. Tech companies like Facebook and Google make billions of dollars every year. But since no law mandates them to combat such crimes, they are unwilling to make any efforts regarding this issue (Ebersole, 2021).

It's not merely enough to take down an online marketplace since the sellers will establish a new group, post, or profile as soon as the market is brought down. To combat the industry's online presence and stop wildlife trafficking on a global scale, there must be a widespread international effort (Hawkins, 2021).

Key Takeaways

Illegal wildlife trading can have detrimental effects on whole ecosystems and forces governments to redirect human and financial resources that may have been used for other essential purposes.

• In recent years, wildlife trafficking was found to be thriving on social media because of its wide accessibility and large user base, with sellers using such platforms to advertise, source, and trade endangered animals.

• Tech companies should take a more proactive role and coordinate with law enforcement agencies to curb the trade. There is also a need for more effective implementation of national wildlife legislations and regulations.

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