Just as the world underwent a rapid digital transformation during COVID-19 lockdowns, wildlife trafficking has adapted as well. While wildlife trafficking saw a significant decline due to restrictions on travel and shipping, the sale of trafficked items has moved online, reported Earth Journalism Network.
Wildlife traffickers have adapted to the changing global landscape and are now using social media to conduct sales and other operations. Illegal animal trade had seen a massive decline in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, with travel restrictions preventing transnational movement of illicit items. However, experts predict that while the number of seizures has gone down, they don’t reflect the reality on the ground on the level of poaching and similar activities.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) and conservation organization, Monitor, launched the fourth edition of the Counter Wildlife Trafficking Digest on May 21. The data from the digest showed that approximately 10,000 kilograms (kg) of pangolin products, 506 kg of ivory, 5.5 kg of tiger products, and 222 kg of rhino horn were seized from illegal wildlife activity in 2020, a decline of 56 percent from the last edition of the CWT Digest.
While a significant portion of the decrease can be attributed to international travel restrictions, other reasons that may have contributed are — lack of manpower to catch perpetrators, diversion of resources to prevent trafficking of medical equipment and lack of attention due to COVID-19, reported the Environmental Investigation Agency.
After countries started imposing lockdown restrictions and restrictions on international travel, airlines saw a 90 percent decrease in passenger traffic. As most illegal animal goods are smuggled through carry-on luggage, the avenues for trafficking were halted. Eager to sell their stock of goods, traders instead made profiles on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Through these social media platforms, traders would directly contact interested buyers. Some buyers would even happen to open these illicit accounts by perusing the right hashtags or keywords. Traders would then make sales and send items through couriers as soon as the restrictions were lifted.
Experts believe that traders have been stockpiling illicit items to cope up with demands as international restrictions on travel ease up. Traders have also been relying on other social media apps to now directly connect with customers.
Google, Facebook, Instagram and other major social media platforms are part of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which aims to battle the illegal wildlife trade. As such, they block profiles and hashtags associated with the trade of wildlife goods. However, in response, traders have moved to social media platforms or messaging apps with less scrutiny like WeChat, WhatsApp, and Telegram.
Wildlife is traded, not just for food and medicine, but also for luxury goods and pets. According to a United Nations Office on Drug and Crime report, there were more captive tigers in the US than in India. China has more than twice as many captives tigers.
This prolific wildlife trade puts animals at the risk of extinction, at the same time, increasing threats of zoonotic diseases like coronaviruses spreading unchecked amongst humans.