Bashful and skittish, the Kaiser’s spotted newt is intriguing and beautiful. With only about 1,000 adults left in the wild in four mountain streams in Iran, it is also critically endangered.
Yet the black, white and orange salamanders are openly on sale for as little as ￡65 (US$103) on numerous Web sites. While these may have been bred in captivity, they are descended from rare individuals taken from the wild, and investigators have identified dealers who say their stocks come from Iran.
Two years ago the Kaiser’s spotted newt was listed as one of the first species put at risk of extinction by online dealers. Now conservationists are warning that the Internet is fueling unprecedented levels of illegal wildlife trade and for many species is the principal threat to their survival.
A report due to be published later this year concludes that a growing proportion of wildlife crime is using “deep Web” tools associated with serious financial criminals, drug traffickers and child pornographers.
“The Internet has without a doubt facilitated the huge expansion of illegal international wildlife trading over the last decade,” said Crawford Allan, of the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic. “Rare jewels of the forest can now be caught, boxed and shipped almost overnight just like any other express commodity.”
It is a wide-ranging business. Elephant ivory is used for ornaments, and parts of tigers and rhinos are used in traditional medicine or ground down and added to wine. Pelts from leopards and polar bears fetch high sums, while rare reptiles, birds and fish are bought as pets.
Global Financial Integrity, a Washington lobby group, last year estimated the global illegal wildlife trade to be worth at least ￡5 billion. Various reporting systems and investigations suggest commercial exploitation of many at risk species has reached — or is close to — an all-time high.
Protected live animals and body parts are still traded in shops and markets in cities such as Bangkok and Jakarta. However, much of the business is now handled online by middlemen using varying degrees of secrecy.
Previous investigations found a lot of trade taking place relatively openly on auction sites, via classified ads and in enthusiast chat rooms. Products from rhino, tigers and elephants are often advertised as historical artifacts without documentary proof. Animals caught in the wild are described as captive bred. Acronyms, misspellings and codewords are used to evade detection.
“Once you know the terminology and you know how to search, then a lot of it is pretty open,” said Vincent Nijman, a reader in anthropology at Oxford Brookes University who has studied the trade.
An investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) highlighted the sale of 2,275 elephant ivory items on eight eBay Web sites in a single week in 2007. The online marketplace has banned such sales, but conservationists say sellers simply avoid using the word “ivory” in item descriptions.
Last month, for example, a search on eBay’s UK site for “ox bone” — a euphemism for elephant ivory — yielded over 5,000 results.
An eBay spokesman said: “eBay works closely with conservation groups such as IFAW and goes beyond legal requirements to restrict the sale of ivory products on the marketplaces site.”
In 2008 IFAW identified more than 7,000 wildlife products from threatened species being offered for sale online. Last year it found ivory worth ￡500,000 for sale on 43 sites in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal.
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.”