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How the Internet Has Made Wildlife Smuggling a 'Low-Risk Activity'

Smugglers are using sites like eBay and Etsy to sell their animal captives.
(Photo: paTTrick/Flickr)

(Photo: paTTrick/Flickr)

Officials recently caught a man trying to smuggle endangered yellow-crested cockatoos through Indonesia. Unfortunately, this is not a rare event: An estimated two to five million birds are illegally trafficked every year, as Smithsonian magazine reported in 2009. Social media—and some horrifying photographs—have helped spread awareness of the cockatoo case. On May 4, the Daily Mail published pictures of the cockatoos stuffed inside plastic water bottles, which the smuggler had hoped would help get the animals through customs undetected. "This method is commonly used to smuggle these protected birds for the exotic pet market," Traffic Southeast Asia, a non-profit that monitors wildlife trade, wrote on its Facebook page.

The Internet has helped smugglers, who, just like eBay and Etsy sellers, buy equipment for their work, arrange sales, and advertise through the Web, according to recent analyses. Simple code works, like "ox bone" for elephant ivory and "striped T-shirt" for tiger skin, help sellers elude detection even on public sites—including eBay and Etsy—journalist Rachel Nuwer reported for Newsweek in 2014. The entire animal trafficking process just seems to have gotten easier. "Trafficking wildlife via the Internet is perceived as a low risk activity, to the point that in one case, according to records from police investigations, it was evident that the trafficking continued even when the perpetrators were conscious that some co-offenders were targeted by law enforcement," international affairs researcher Anita Lavorgna wrote in a paper published in the journal Crime Science in 2014. In one case Lavorgna analyzed, a smuggler told an interviewer that the Internet has "entailed an explosion" in illegal plant and animal trade.

The Internet has also eliminated several layers of middlemen that the illicit wildlife trade previously required, Lavorgna found. In one case, 11 people were caught using the Internet to find geo-referenced locations for rare cacti before heading to Chile, Argentina, and Peru to dig up the plants and sell them "on dedicated forums and websites to cacti lovers." As for sharing tips on shipping plants and animals clandestinely—for example, in water bottles—smugglers tend to use email for that, Lavorgna wrote.

One smuggler told an interviewer that the Internet has "entailed an explosion" in illegal plant and animal trade.

Companies including eBay, Google Shopping, Etsy, and Alibaba now work with wildlife monitors to determine what they should and shouldn't allow users to sell, Nuwer reported in Newsweek.

Any slowdown in the traffic of yellow-crested cockatoos, at least, would help. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists the birds as critically endangered. "Its precipitous decline is almost entirely attributable to unsustainable exploitation for internal and international trade," according to a 2008 case study.

There's an adage that goes something like, "If you want it, you can find it on the Internet." For endangered animals, that's been a devastating truth.