Inside the complicated world of online wildlife trafficking

You’ve heard of Cecil’s dentist killer, but for many other lions, elephants, rhinos and tens of thousands of other exotic animals, internet marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist are the biggest threat.

The Guardian
August 3, 2015

Hides and other illegal items confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo: FWS
Hides and other illegal items confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo: FWS

If you live in the continental US, have $4,850 and an internet connection, this large, full-body, mounted African lion, with a shaggy red mane, can be yours.

“This is a fantastic buy for someone who wants a good Lion,” the eBay ad reads. “This mount will make an awesome decoration in any home, office, hunting lodge, lake house, lodge homes, cabin, bar, etc.”

The listing makes no mention of how the animal was procured, nor whether it was legally imported. So perhaps this stuffed, reclining lion for $870 is better suited to the discerning trophy-buyer. Its seller, African Game Industries, assures you that this lion was imported with all of the necessary permits and was inspected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). It does not offer to produce the paperwork.

On Thursday, in the wake of public outcry over the illegal killing of Zimbabwe’s most recognizable lion, Cecil, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to act on illegal hunting.

A frustrating fight

But controlling wildlife trafficking is increasingly difficult for law enforcement, in no small part due to online marketplaces such as eBay and Craigslist. Although many popular digital trading posts have adopted regulations to attempt to curtail illegal sales of plants and animals, enforcement can be a nightmare.

The Office of the US Trade Representative estimates that wildlife trafficking and related environmental crimes are worth anywhere between $70bn and $213bn annually.

The Obama administration’s attempt to fight trafficking has been frustratingly slow, as far as animal welfare groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) are concerned.

Last year, pointing to the catastrophic uptick in the slaughter of African elephants and the US’s position as the world’s second largest ivory market, FWS said it would ban the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. It wasn’t until last weekend, however, while visiting Kenya, that Obama formally proposed the new restrictions, which are now subject to a 60-day comment period.

It is currently legal in most states to sell lawfully-imported ivory acquired before a worldwide ban in 1989.

Big game hunting groups and the National Rifle Association are likely to fight the ban, despite an exemption that allows individuals to bring two “sport-hunted African elephant trophies” into the US per year.

Proponents of the ban say a legal ivory trade will never work because of corruption. Opponents say corruption will make a ban on ivory unworkable.

The impact of the internet

While the wrangling over ivory drags on, wildlife traffickers continue to ply their trade, using channels that are increasingly internet-based.