Combatting wildlife cybercrime in the EUWildlife traffickers have access to a vast online marketplace, open all hours.
While investigating the lion bone trade for an academic essay, I found myself wondering how easy it was for an ordinary citizen to purchase such products. It only took me two-minutes to find a lion skull advert for sale without any proof of legality. And I encountered it neither on a specific platform hidden from non-expert individuals nor on the dark web – but on a mainstream platform. I was in awe of how easy and accessible it was. This was my first real introduction to the prevalence of wildlife cybercrime in our society where social media and online platform usage thrives.
Learning about the program
A few weeks later, I found out IFAW-France posted an offer for a volunteering position that would help combat wildlife cybercrime as part of the “Wildlife Cyber-Spotter program”. IFAW’s Cyber-Spotter Program is a critical force of citizen scientists and one of the key components of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. After undergoing training on how to identify suspicious wildlife products, cyber-spotters are ready to act as additional eyes on the web. They report content directly to IFAW campaigners, who then collaborate with online platforms to remove this content and enhance policies that tackle wildlife cybercrime.
This volunteer opportunity appeared perfect to me. At the time, I was working on my Master thesis looking at the UK demand for antique ivory, and felt like I could give a few hours per week to help support IFAW’s work. The position would help me gain new knowledge and experience in my field of studies, while also making a real contribution to the fight against online wildlife trafficking.
My experience working as a cyber-spotter
The session started with training where we learnt both what a suspicious advert looks like and keys on how to identify specimens. We – the eight selected volunteers – came from varied backgrounds, but all shared a mutual passion for wildlife. During this six-week program, we monitored targeted specimens on partner online platforms (e.g. Leboncoin) for four hours a week. To keep our mind stimulated and motivated, we switched online platforms as well as specimens’ categories to monitor half way through the program. I was first in charge of flagging suspicious adverts of reptiles and then of ivory. However, I cannot deny four hours a week were enough for me... I have never been able to get out of my mind the reality of the supply chain behind the photos of the illicit adverts I was looking at: the killing of elephants, the skinning of still-alive pythons, the cramming of parrots into plastic water bottles before being smuggled, and so on.
Nonetheless, I definitely felt a strong sense of purpose throughout this volunteering experience. Now that I have advanced from volunteer to campaigner ensuring the follow-up to this program, I can confirm that this is not just a volunteer feeling but instead a real game-changer. This program in France is responsible for the removal of a thousand illicit adverts, but that is just the beginning. By encouraging online platforms to take action and strengthen their policies and filtering systems, we’re creating long-lasting measures that help disrupt criminal networks and end wildlife cybercrime.
You can make a difference by becoming an educated consumer
Finally, I encourage each one of you to engage in this fight against wildlife cybercrime by pledging to be an educated consumer, by raising consumer awareness around you and by flagging illicit wildlife-related adverts online, whether via the cyber-spotter programs or by yourself. And even though you will not necessarily witness the impacts of these actions, I can assure you how useful and crucial those efforts are. We are doing our best, but we need all the support we can get. So please, keep engaging, as we need everyone’s help to protect animals from the deadly threat of wildlife cybercrime.
Lionel Hachemin, Campaign Officer
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