Research identifies illegal wildlife trade on the Darknet

Wednesday, 14 June, 2017
London, UK

Illegal wildlife traders may be turning their attention to the Darknet, a new INTERPOL research report has found.

Experts from the INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation found limited, but clear evidence of criminals using the Darknet to sell illicit wildlife products from critically endangered species such as rhino horn, elephant ivory and tiger parts and products.

Funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the US Department of State and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), the ‘Illegal Wildlife Trade in the Darknet’ research report also showed the majority of trading was in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

Conducted between December 2016 and April 2017, the research found 21 advertisements, some dating back to 2015, offering rhino horn products, ivory and tiger parts.

David Higgins, Manager of INTERPOL’s Environmental Security programme said the emerging use of the Darknet was part of an overall increase in the use of online platforms for the illicit trade in wildlife.

“Criminals will always seek to identify new areas to make a profit from their illicit activities and the Darknet is no exception,” said Mr Higgins.

“We need to ensure that law enforcement in member countries has the support and resources they need to tackle wildlife crime in both physical and virtual marketplaces to help protect our wildlife and our shared global biodiversity,” said Mr Higgins.  

 “The good news is that researchers found very limited amounts of products available for sale on the Darknet,” said Tania McCrea-Steele, IFAW Global Wildlife Cybercrime Project Lead. “The bad news is that INTERPOL researchers found adverts selling parts of some of the most critically endangered species on earth on one of the most difficult to regulate Internet platforms.”

“We simply can’t ignore the opportunities the Darknet offers to criminals wanting to peddle wildlife in secret,” said Ms McCrea-Steele.

“Criminal networks are adapting new ways to traffic wildlife illegally and law enforcement must stay ahead of their game and collaborate at greater scale. Ultimately our efforts will succeed if wildlife species affected by this illicit trade continue to thrive in their natural habitats’’ said Philip Muruthi, AWF Vice President for Species Conservation.

The report says wildlife traders are likely to be attracted to the Darknet because of its strong anonymity and security mechanisms, with sellers already familiar with the encryption technology, financial instruments and communication methods commonly used in this anonymous space.

As much as 96 per cent of the Internet is not indexed by standard search engines, making the Deepweb of which the Darknet is a part of, about 500 times the size of the World Wide Web. It is typically used to promote illegal services or crime areas such as drug trafficking, financial crime, cybercrime and online child sexual exploitation.

The growth in e-commerce and the potential interest in this crime area demonstrates the need for law enforcement officials to analyse the Darknet when investigating wildlife criminals.

Deterrents to using the Darknet as a ‘marketplace’ for wildlife products highlighted in the INTERPOL report could be the general low level of enforcement in relation to illicit wildlife products making trade elsewhere easier, high and inconsistent prices, buyers’ concerns that they may be scammed and the difficulties attached to shipping products.

The research focused specifically on rhinoceros, elephants and tigers, which are all endangered species with any international trade in their parts or products strictly forbidden. In South Africa - which has the largest population of white and black rhinos worldwide - the number of rhinos poached for their horns increased more than 90-fold between 2007 and 2015, with 1,054 killed in 2016 alone

In 2016, more than 20 tonnes of poached elephant ivory, which is prized as ‘white gold’ in parts of Asia and China, as well as the United States, was seized by law enforcement globally.

Asian big cats are killed for their parts, such as their skin, claws, teeth, bones and blood, which are used for traditional medicine and tiger bone wine, among other uses.

INTERPOL has a long standing partnership with IFAW to combat global wildlife crime both on and offline. In 2013, an INTERPOL project supported by IFAW to identify the drivers and scale of the illegal online trade in ivory, revealed hundreds of items worth approximately EUR 1.45 million for sale on Internet auction sites across nine European countries during a single two-week period.

About IFAW

Founded in 1969, IFAW rescues and protects animals around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals, and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit www.ifaw.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Photos are available at www.ifawimages.com.

About the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF)

Founded in 1961, African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is the leading conservation organization focused solely on the African continent. AWF’s programs and conservation strategies are based on sound science and designed to protect both the wild lands and wildlife of Africa and ensure a more sustainable future for Africa’s people. Since its inception, AWF has protected endangered species and land, promoted partnerships with the private sector for ecotourism to benefit local African communities as a means to improve livelihoods, and trained hundreds of African nationals in conservation—all to ensure the survival of Africa’s unparalleled wildlife heritage. To learn more, please visit www.awf.org.

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Peter LaFontaine, Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
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Tania McCrea-Steele, Global Wildlife Cybercrime Project Lead, IFAW UK
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