Internet Is a Key Battleground in Wildlife Crime Fight
BANGKOK Why trawl through a sweaty illegal wildlife market in Asia when you can shop for rare animals and exotic plants on the Internet?
Wildlife crime experts say the World Wide Web is the latest battleground in the war against increasingly sophisticated traffickers peddling endangered species around the globe.
"This is a new smuggling way to contact customers and deliver the goods," said John Webb, a senior U.S. Justice Department official, at a wildlife summit in Bangkok.
The lucrative illegal trade in everything from ivory and tiger skins to rare snakes and timber is a key issue at the two-week Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference, which began on Saturday.
CITES is the global body that regulates trade in endangered animals and plants, but law enforcement experts say they are losing the fight against an illicit trade almost as lucrative as drugs and guns.
The Internet is fast becoming a key tool for wildlife criminals hunting for customers, said Webb, assistant chief of the department's environmental crimes section. He recalled a recent bust involving a Bangkok resident who sometimes joined Internet chat rooms to find buyers in the United States for live reptiles.
"You can find a chat room for just about any animal or plant," Webb said. "This is the place where people meet and then go elsewhere on line to talk about doing an illegal activity."
When the Bangkok trader closed a sale, the reptiles were shipped through an overnight courier service.
Webb said traffickers often label their goods as artifacts or stuffed animals, which are hard to detect in the sheer volume of normal deliveries.
The Bangkok trader was nabbed only after he made the mistake of flying to the United States on a routine visit.
"He was arrested and convicted, and he got 41 months in jail for trafficking in live reptiles," Webb said.
In March, environmentalists investigating the ivory trade in Britain, where smuggling carries a maximum seven-year jail sentence, said they found thousands of illegal ivory items for sale on Internet auction sites.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said its two-month investigation found "huge amounts of ivory being sold into and out of the U.K. via eBay and other Internet auction sites using postal and courier services."
The group said scores of sellers in Australia, Canada, China, Britain, and the United States offered to sell ivory to IFAW investigators illegally.
"In some cases, this was due to ignorance of the law. In others, sellers were happy to forge documents to evade the law in other ways," IFAW said, urging Internet service providers to monitor more closely the traffic through their sites.