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Is the dark web being exploited to facilitate the illicit wildlife trade?

The anonymous nature of the dark web has qualified it to be an ideal place for undergoing various forms of illegal activities. The Tor network enables anyone, anywhere in the world, to launch a website, or a “hidden service,” in a totally anonymous manner. Tor hidden services enable the hosting of illicit darknet marketplaces, or cryptomarkets, which facilitate the trading of illicit drugs, hacking tools, weapons, stolen private data, counterfeited documents, and other forms of illegal goods. Recently, there have been reports that cryptomarkets are being exploited to facilitate illegal trading of wildlife species and their products.

IFAW and online wildlife trade investigations:

Online wildlife trade has been investigated by The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) over the surface web since 2004. Investigations attempted at assessing the nature and magnitude of trade in wildlife and its products across various surface internet marketplaces. The investigations of IFAW were conducted in response to a significant rise in wildlife poaching across various parts of the globe, with evidence that at least 100,000 elephants had been slaughtered in less than three years for their ivory. Illicit trade in ivory, wildlife, and wildlife products not only threatens the conservation of species, but also represents a challenge to global security, as well as to the economy of countries throughout which this form of illegal trade takes place. It is estimated that illicit wildlife trade activities generate more than $19 billion annually.

In 2014, the IFAW investigated illegal wildlife trade activities taking place on 280 internet-based marketplaces during a period of six weeks. The investigation managed to find over 33,000 endangered wildlife species and wildlife products listed for sale, with an estimated worth of over $10 million. 54% of the listed products involved live animals, while the remaining 46% were of wildlife parts and products. The most widely sold items were reptiles, ivory, and birds.

Wildlife trade and the dark web:

To date, the dark web has not been proven to be exploited in the illegal trading of wildlife species and their products. A recently published paper attempts to assess the magnitude of illegal wildlife trade taking place on the dark web, mainly via reviewing research studies conducted in this area during the past few years.

A study conducted in 2017 by Roberts and Castro showed that wildlife related product listings on darknet marketplaces mostly involve counterfeited goods. However, there is evidence that cryptomarkets can serve as “last resort marketplaces” which become more attractive than Clearnet marketplaces, as law enforcement agencies enforce international policies against illicit trading of wildlife species and their products.

The study conducted by Roberts and Castro in 2017 has proven that there is not a significant volume of illicit wildlife trade taking place on the dark web and has described the majority of relevant product listings as “bycatch goods” that are traded for other reasons and happen to contain parts of wildlife species. For example, the study identified product listings that involved hallucinogenic cacti and fake Chanel bags produced from the skin of reptiles.

Nevertheless, there have been a small number of product listings on darknet marketplaces involving more explicitly illicit wildlife products. One vendor on Alphabay listed elephant ivory and rhino horn for sale. Furthermore, several short lived darknet marketplaces were reported to list products from Africa, that had included gold, diamond, and rhino horn.

In 2017, the Swedish police reported that great grey owls, a highly endangered species, are being sold on darknet marketplaces and private Facebook groups. Police reports at the time highlighted that a mature great grey owl can be sold for more than $120,000. During the same year, law enforcement agencies in Australia busted a group specializing in selling exotic animals, namely reptiles, over darknet marketplaces.

In 2018, Dittus and colleagues published a research study that analyzed the geographical locations of vendors and buyers on five key darknet marketplaces in 2017. Results of this study showed that darknet marketplaces mostly replace the “last mile” of the illicit drug trade, as vendors are usually geographically located close to the countries of buyers, rather than close to drug production centers. In other words, the flow of trade on darknet marketplaces is more or less in-continent, or in-country, rather than extending on a wide international scale. The same concept can logically apply to illegal wildlife trade, so darknet marketplaces presently replace only segments of the global supply chain of illicit wildlife products, as traders will mostly exploit other distribution means for bulk transactions.

Darknet marketplaces are mostly used by individuals from Europe and North America. Reports denote that buyers interested in illegal wildlife products on darknet marketplaces are mostly from the USA, the UK, and Germany.

Final thoughts:

The anonymity offered via the dark web renders it an attractive platform for facilitation of illicit trading of wildlife species and their products, despite the present low volume identified in recent research studies. With growing global law enforcement efforts to counteract illegal wildlife trade, and wide usage of anonymous payment methods, namely cryptocurrencies, we can expect the dark web to be exploited more in this form of illegal activity during the next few years, so more studies are needed to monitor this

by: Tamer Sameeh