International trade in wildlife is regulated by the CITES convention. Exploitation of about 800 threatened species is largely banned, while exporting and importing many others require permits.
A forthcoming report from Traffic will reveal how researchers in Canada received e-mails from dealers offering to export coral without required permits by pretending the specimens were glass.
IFAW, which has been working with Interpol, says organized wildlife criminals are becoming increasingly secretive online.
The “deep Web” of sites not accessible via search engines and which require software to access has long been used by criminals in other spheres to evade law enforcement.
“Online wildlife trade is seen as a high-profit, low-risk activity by some criminals,” said Kelvin Alfie, of IFAW. “A lot is shifting from publicly accessible sites to dark corners of the web.”
A report on the ivory trade in the EU later this year by IFAW will highlight the use of tools such as mailing list servers, password-protected sites and encryption.
Laws to protect wildlife often pre-date the online trade. However, the net can also be used against criminals. While it helped Kaiser spotted newt dealers to find buyers, the traces they left alerted investigators to the existence of the trade.
“It works both ways,” said Ernie Cooper, of Traffic. “The Internet has made it easier for traders, but it has also helped us research and monitor their activities.”