The global online trade, including in wildlife, is growing rapidly, allowing small businesses to prosper and reach global audiences, while masking increasing numbers of illegal transactions.
With heightened media interest in the illegal wildlife trade, and official moves by governments across the world to strengthen and enforce current local, national and international legislations, the trade is increasingly moving from physical marketplaces to online platforms. This shift towards online trade has been identified by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as an area requiring urgent attention and action (see Decisions 17.92 to 17.96 and 15.57 on Combating wildlife cybercrime, particularly around sharing of best practices, data, and updates in domestic legislation in relation to cybercrime).
Anonymity extends to new demographics
How cyberspace influences interpersonal interactions is an emerging area of research. Behaviours that do not meet societal norms in face-to-face interactions, may be allowed and expressed online due to an increased sense of anonymity. Extreme social interactions, such as cyber-bullying, are, however, not the only activities that can become extreme over the internet. In the case of online trade in illegal wildlife, such extreme behaviour may manifest itself in an increased willingness to buy and sell illegal wildlife, including by those who previously may not have expressed such a willingness to engage in unlawful trade through face-to-face purchasing. As such, the shift to online trade allows sellers to reach a global market and engage new demographics previously not involved in the trade. In 2017, GlobeScan, an indipendent research consultancy, showed a younger demographic was becoming involved in the ivory trade in China due to the move to online platforms from physical shops following the announcement of the ban.
Finding and identifying illegally traded items
Combating online trade in wildlife is challenging and this challenge stems from the difficulty in finding and identifying illegally traded items. Firstly, identification of the species and/or product being offered can be difficult due to the diversity of the species involved, the variety of the forms in which the species are transformed into a product (e.g. part and derivative including worked items from carvings to beads, foodstuffs, traditional medicines) and the differences in the trading communities involved. Secondly, even if the species and/or product can be easily identified, the question still remains whether the item offered for sale is actually illegal, given there is a comparatively larger legal trade in wildlife
. These two factors come together and interplay with the type of platform over which the item is being offered: structured pages of sites such as eBay contain information that is rather different from that of social media sites, where text freely flows, or that of image-based sites such as Instagram where text is confined to hashtags.
While images used for advertising items are an important resource in identification, the process of searching for illegal wildlife is largely text-based, relying on search terms. The emergence of code words in the online trade in elephant ivory has been suggested to be as a result of platforms such as eBay banning the trade (IFAW pers. comm.). Much of these code words are related to other materials that could be a substitute of elephant ivory, such as "ox-bone" or "faux ivory", with close up images provided to show potential buyers the presence of Schreger lines, indicative of elephant ivory. While the global reach of the internet and the use of code word may appear to be challenging, recent research has suggested that with an increasingly global market there appears to be consolidation of the terms used, irrespective of language (Alfino & Roberts in press); in the case of elephant ivory, what is the most popular code word in the UK, is likely to be the most popular in France or Italy even with linguistic differences.
While code words used to trade in elephant ivory are designed to evade detection, the use of code words in the illegal wildlife trade is likely to be the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of the illegal wildlife trade is in less charismatic species and/or products, where there is less pressure from enforcement and/or an existing legal trade. In these cases, vernaculars for the species name or product are openly used, with slang or abbreviations used in some communities (e.g. Double Yellow-headed Amazon Parrot can be abbreviated to DYH, or the New Caledonian or Leach's giant gecko is often referred to as leachies).
The use of slang terms is not intended to deceive, unlike code words. Finally, for a significant proportion of the trades where species are diverse, such as the horticultural and exotic pet trades, Latin names are used. Often these names or terms of the species or products are the main route into the identification of illegal online trade through the use of search terms, supported by images as part of the subsequent identification. However, beyond the images and text, there is additional metadata, such as price, postage costs, feedback scores, numbers of bids that have been shown to be important indicators of illegal trade, but significantly are more difficult for sellers to manipulate; compared with shifting code words and altering image use.
From open online platforms to the darknet
The response of some sections of the conservation community (e.g. IFAW, TRAFFIC and WWF) has been to increase pressure on online trade platforms to do more to actively tackle the illegal wildlife trade taking place on their sites as part of corporate social responsibility. For sites that function specifically as a trading platform, their primary concern is likely to be identifying those that are comitting fraud or attempting to sell off their site, thus reducing their income. The fact that illegal wildlife trade transits through them is likely to be of considerably less concern, other than raising issues of damaged public relations and reputation.
Even if these sites were willing to actively tackle the issue by identifying the illegal wildlife being offered on their platforms, taking down posts of illegal wildlife runs the risk of losing valuable intelligence and push the trade onto hard-to-reach darknet sites such as closed forums on social media or sites that use the Tor Network, which provides an increased level of anonymity. There are, indeed, some trades that are active in private groups on social media, while a very limited amount of trade has appeared on the darknet (Tor Network) such as the former marketplace Alphabay . Though Alphabay has recently been taken down (when the servers were identified), novel services that provide increased anonymity but also are decentralised are continuing to be developed such as OpenBazaar that would be particularly difficult to disrupt. While darkweb sites are of concern, a significant proportion of the illegal wildlife trade, including trade in elephant ivory (Alfino & Roberts in press), is still taking place in the open on surface websites, that also include business websites such as those of antique dealers.
Cyber-technology for enforcing the law
Opportunities exist where cyber-technology could be applied to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade, particularly in the use of artificial intelligence to identify items being traded and those involved in the trade. There are, however, technical challenges in developing such tools. If government law enforcers were to use such technology, the tools would have to adhere to the website’s terms and conditions, especially over users' privacy and copyright over content. If they didn’t adhere to such conditions, then law enforcers’ usage of this technology in investigations would constitute a crime.
This is why developing partnerships between websites and law enforcement is likely to be a key factor for successful policing. This will include software to record the process through which law enforcement officers identify illegal wildlife. This information could then feed in as a training dataset for automated machines’ learning algorithms, including keyword identification in titles and descriptions, but also image analysis and associated metadata. The software can help with the subsequent profiling of those involved in the trade based on the attributes of post/s.
Given the diversity of the species, products and communities involved in the trade, as discussed earlier, it is unlikely that a 'one size fits all' or 'silver bullet' approach is realistic, more likely different technologies will have to be developed to tackle the myriad of different types of illegal wildlife trades.
Alfino, S. & Roberts, D. L. (in press). Code word usage in the online ivory trade across four European Union member states. Oryx.
 The distinction between illegal and legal trade differs depending on the product, country etc.
 The Tor is a software that allows for anonymous communication by relaying internet traffic through a number of hosts in a manner that helps to prevent detection of the user’s location.
 A former online darknet market which operated via the Tor network.