Since its genesis in 1991, the internet has become the world’s largest marketplace. Trillions of dollars a day are spent on everything from tea kettles to cars. Unfortunately, just as every other black market has found its place online, so too has the illegal animal trade. From niche pets like endangered gray parrots, to wildly expensive rhino horn ivory and bear bile, you really can find anything for sale on the internet.
The illicit animal market is the fifth largest contraband trade in the world, just behind narcotics. It nets roughly $24 billion a year, excluding illegal trade in lumber and fisheries. Meanwhile, 52% of wildlife populations around the world have disappeared since 1970, and there are over 16,000 known endangered species. A study from the World Wildlife Fund found that the illegal animal trade is a primary factor in species extinctions.
Like most industries now, the majority of the trade has an online component. $13 million in ivory passes through LiveAuctioneers.com, and almost none of those businesses can verify its provenance. This means that much, if not most of it, comes from illegal sources. Often, buyers aren’t aware that they are purchasing an illegal pet or product. Many people try to legally purchase animal products or exotic pets online. However, this means unwitting buyers often play right into the hands of animal traffickers.
In an industry worth tens of billions of dollars, what’s really in demand? The answer: Ivory. At $30,000 a pound, rhino horn is worth more than gold. Poachers kill that same number of elephants a year just to hack off their precious ivory tusks. From 1998-2011, the demand for ivory has increased by 300%; that rate is growing as rhino and elephant populations dwindle. In 2007, thirteen rhinos were killed by poachers. In 2011, that number was 1,000. To make matters worse, this isn’t a matter of wealthy people in other countries bidding for rhino horn and elephant tusks. These kinds of shady deals are happening in our own backyard. Just last year, law enforcement caught owners of Metropolitan Fine Arts and Antiques in Midtown, Manhattan with USD $4.5 million worth of ivory from more than a dozen slaughtered elephants. Among 126 ivory items, one pair of tusks was selling for $200,000, right in the heart of Manhattan.
And where has this brutal industry moved to but Facebook? As the third most visited website on the internet, surpassed only by Google and Youtube, Facebook is an enormous market. Niall Cooke, a former reptile smuggler from Australia turned whistleblower, explains that internet chatrooms were the original online black market for exotic and endangered species, but since then, buyers and sellers have taken full advantage of Facebook’s ‘closed’ group system. It’s market of billions, combined with low regulation and lax web-policing make Facebook a breeding ground for criminal activity of all kinds; the animal trade is no exception.
To infiltrate these private communities, one must attract interest as a buyer or seller without being open about your illegal intentions. One reporter, who gave an exclusive with Wired.com, found his way in by pretending to be a national park employee in South Africa looking to make money. From there, he was squeezed through a series of questionings before being thrust into a wall of posts filled with images of tiger claws and ivory disks and private messages asking to buy ivory from him. It’s incredibly easy for infiltrators and reporters to gain access to these communities.
By his own admission, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes the website is late to address risks of illegal activity. Though the company is 14 years old, it only began developing tools to identify terrorist content two years ago. For other crimes, like wildlife trafficking, change depends on members of the community to flag dangerous posts. Of course, in the black market closed groups, you won’t find many whistleblowers.
Facebook has been accused of everything from upending elections to enabling genocide, and activists and regulators are beginning to wonder whether the tech industry and its giants have been given too much freedom. The internet has flourished under that freedom, and given birth to billions of new ideas, inventions, and movements. However, where greatness flourishes, so too do cruelty and darkness. Many activists see that shining a light on the role that social media, namely Facebook, plays in enabling crimes like the illicit animal trade is about more than just saving the Rhinos. It’s about holding industries accountable for the dangerous problems they help to create.