By Callum Hoare, Express
More than a quarter-of-a-million people have now died from COVID-19 in a pandemic that has infected just shy of four million people internationally and affected the lives of billions more. Scientists suspect the outbreak originated in bats, before possibly spreading to pangolins, and making the jump to humans inside the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China – which is reported to have stocked 120 wild animals across 75 species. In February, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a temporary ban on the hunting, trading and consumption of wild animals, and there has been international pressure – including from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – for it to be made permanent.
Since China’s Wildlife Protection Law of 1988, which allows the “domestication and breeding of wildlife,” millions have relied on the trade as a source of livelihood and Dr Richard Thomas, an expert in wildlife trade monitoring at Traffic, has told Express.co.uk that the problem in Asia’s trafficking routes now runs deep.
He said: “Most of our staff are based in Asia, so we have big offices in Kuala Lumpur, China, Vietnam and Japan.
“We do a lot of physical market monitoring, where my colleagues will go and have a look around a market and see what’s for sale.
“But we also do a lot of work monitoring online sales, to see what’s taking place there.
“Out of that, we have become involved with the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which includes major companies like Google and Facebook, but started with the Chinese companies Baidu and Alibaba.”
The coalition was set up in 2018 by Traffic, the WWF and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to bring together e-commerce, search and social media companies across the world to combat wildlife trafficking online with a target to reduce activity by 80 percent in 2020.
This bold and ambitious goal inspired 34 global technology companies to join forces with the leading wildlife organisations and proactively tackle the trafficking and sales of items including elephant ivory, tiger fur, rhino horns, pangolin scales, turtle meat and other exotic animals kept as pets or killed for their claimed benefits in traditional medicine.
Upon joining the coalition, companies submit a confidential, platform-specific action plan to address the unique threats on their platform as the situation is ever-evolving with the use of code words and other covert tactics.
A report from March, shared with Express.co.uk, showed 3,335,381 listings had been removed across the board thanks to artificial intelligence and 470 individually trained cyber staff members had flagged 4,500 wildlife products and identified 1,170 suspicious wildlife code words.
Dr Thomas outlined some of the work that was being done in Asian countries to infiltrate the trade routes, but he fears an increase amid China’s recent ban.
He said: “We do a lot of work with enforcement officers, providing basic training, skills like species identification, letting customs officers know what to be on the lookout for and how to distinguish different animal groups.
“I think we will see an increase in online trading with the ban that has been brought in.
“Wildlife is another commodity, it’s bought and sold like anything else, and, increasingly, the world is going online.
“There has been a big growth in trading of wildlife and wildlife parts online, which creates enforcement challenges.
“Often it’s taking place on closed social media groups or on particular social media applications which are hard for enforcement agencies to infiltrate.”
Express.co.uk spoke to Facebook, who banned the trade of all live animals and products listed as endangered and made it easier for users on both Facebook and Instagram to flag prohibited species listings in real-time.
They also process, and respond to government and law enforcement requests related to animal abuse through their Law Enforcement Online Request System.
A spokesman told Express.co.uk: “The protection and safety of the natural world is important to us and our global community.
“We do not allow the sale of endangered species on our platforms and when we find such content, we remove it.
“As a member of the WWF’s Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, we are committed to working with local law enforcement and Traffic to tackle this issue.”
Google, one of the most visited websites in the world, was one of the original conveners of the coalition and has helped catalyse the industry to address wildlife trafficking globally.
The American multinational technology company told Express.co.uk it has worked closely since 2018 with WWF to improve its own systems and take down problematic content promoting wildlife abuse.
Its ad policy on inappropriate content and animal cruelty prohibits posts that promote cruelty or gratuitous violence against animals as well as the sale or trade of endangered species.
Google said it meets regularly with the WWF to discuss evolving trends and needs in this area and also hosts events in the US to raise awareness.
Dr Thomas exposed the shocking tactics used by these rogue traders that exploit these sites, and other companies, for personal gain.
He said: “What we are seeing is, no longer does the buyer need to meet the seller, often the transaction and the payment can take place through these applications.
“But then, of course, the product’s got to get from A to B, and we’re seeing the courier companies are increasingly being used for transportation.
“We’ve done quite a lot of work with these companies to teach staff on what to be suspicious of, certain packages – air holes are a giveaway.
“That’s where the market place is going, and obviously e-commerce is just getting bigger and bigger.”
In China, Facebook was blocked following the July 2009 Urumqi riots, but the coalition also includes Chinese websites such as Weibo, Alibaba, Baidu and Sogou.
Cyber spotters are expecting an increase in the rise of illegal activity on these sites in the wake of the recent wildlife trade ban in China, Dr Thomas added.
He continued: “One aspect of all this which will emerge, as it has with previous economic downturns, is an increase in criminal activity.
“There may well be a boom in wildlife trafficking once we get over this and start to return to normality – it will be a very different world.
“We’ve had long-term monitoring of Chinese language websites now that use code words, it originated for ivory, where they would sell ‘ox horns,’ which is just code for ivory.
“Studies on social media in South East Asia have shown how buyers and sellers are put in touch and discuss wildlife.”
Dr Thomas was quick to praise all the companies for their work so far, but admitted now, more than ever, there is a lot of work to be done ahead. He added: “The coalition to counter this trafficking online includes Facebook and Google, but between all the sites they’ve taken down millions of adverts this year selling illegal wildlife.
“There has been, certainly, a very positive response from these companies who have seen their services abused.
“But, it’s massive, at any one time they have billions of adverts and even with this artificial intelligence monitoring, it’s still a major policing operation.
“It’s just another commodity and that’s why it’s a major challenge, criminals see it as low risk, high reward.
“They believe the authorities are more likely to go after them if they are trying to flog people, guns or drugs.”
The WWF has already noticed a spike in a new emerging, and concerning, type of trade – the sale of fraudulent coronavirus cures said to be made from endangered species. A WWF spokeswoman told Express.co.uk: “There are indications that wildlife traffickers are using the same channels to reach consumers as everyone else during the COVID-19 lockdowns, including marketing via the internet and social media, shipping via post, and trafficking via small parcels.
“There are also alarming trends appearing online, including peddling fraudulent COVID-19 cures said to be made from endangered species, such as bear bile, rhino horn, and tiger bone.
“It is now more critical than ever to work with online companies through the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online to stop the sales of fake cures and illicit wildlife at source, before listings and adverts can even be posted online.”