Federal officials go “cyberwild” busting illegal wildlife traders
Yesterday morning, federal and State of California law enforcement officials filed charges against 12 people for allegedly violating laws against trade in endangered species following an over six-month sting operation dubbed “Operation Cyberwild.” Led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents, the operation targeted individuals in Southern California and southwestern Nevada who were selling wildlife illegally through Internet-based marketplaces such as Craigslist.org. We at the International Fund for Animal Welfare would like to applaud their efforts on bringing these criminals to justice.
For almost 10 years now, IFAW has been investigating the online trade in wildlife products in the U.S. and around the world. We have concluded again and again that the Internet could easily be a conduit for wildlife crime. We have published our findings and talked to governments, the media, international institutions, Internet-based marketplaces and others about the dangers that online wildlife trafficking poses to endangered species around the world.
Occasionally, important key actors have taken action. In 2008,– eBay, Inc., took the brave and conscientious step of banning the sale of all ivory on its websites worldwide following IFAW’s groundbreaking global investigative report Killing with Keystrokes: An Investigation of the Illegal Wildlife Trade on the World Wide Web. The report followed a three-month investigation that tracked more than 7,000 wildlife product listings on 183 web sites in 11 countries, most of which were on eBay sites.
More often than not, however, we are asked by government officials and others how we know for sure that illegal wildlife products are being traded online. The answer is, we don’t always know, not for sure. Very rarely during our investigations do we find clearly illegal items – a tiger pelt, a rhino horn, a gorilla hand – things that are always illegal even to offer for sale in almost every nation.
Instead, we find elephant ivory in massive amounts, along with other things like exotic birds and reptile skin products, which are sometimes legal, sometimes not. When wildlife products like these are posted online, and the law doesn’t require online sellers to include proof that their sales are legal (like a permit or registration form or certificate of antiquity), it’s impossible to know by just looking at the posting whether the item is being legally sold or not. We can’t purchase items, determine if they’re illegal, and then bust offenders. We need law enforcement to do that, but unfortunately it hasn’t happened often enough.
So, we want to offer our thanks to the law enforcement officials who both scoured the Internet for possible illegal wildlife sales like IFAW has done so many times over the years and charged several alleged perpetrators with criminal violations. We admire the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents and team who conducted this investigation so skillfully, and we hope “Operation Cyberwild” serves as a wake up call to Internet marketplaces, other U.S. states, and other countries’ governments that the Internet wildlife trade must be addressed by law enforcement if we are to save endangered animals from extinction at the hands of poachers and their worldwide criminal trade networks.