The internet has made it easier for people to buy and sell a wide variety of wildlife – from orchids, cacti and fungi to thousands of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish, as well as insects, corals and other invertebrates animals.
But in addition to the legal wildlife trade, there is a dark twin: the illegal wildlife trade. Endangered birds of which very few are left in the wild. Horns sawn off of shot rhinoceroses. The illegal wildlife trade is a scourge. It puts further pressure on nature, contributes to biodiversity loss and threatens biosecurity, sustainable development and human well-being worldwide.
In our new research, we explored the dark web – the secretive part of the internet that was deliberately hidden from search engines. Most people associate the dark web with illegal drug markets. We wanted to see what kinds of animals were sold there.
The result? On 51 dark web marketplaces, we found 153 strains being sold. These were almost all plants and fungi with psychoactive effects, indicating that they are part of the well-known drug trade on the dark web. There were only a small number of advertisements offering vertebrates, such as the infamous one Path of the Colorado Riverwho is under pressure from poaching because his skin secretes psychoactive toxins as a defense.
Why don’t illegal wildlife traders use the dark web? Especially since the trade in illegally trafficked animals and animal parts isn’t hidden – it’s all over the open internet. For example, the frog poison kambo used in the ritual that killed a Mullumbimby woman in 2019 is still openly sold.
What was being sold on the dark web?
Between 2014 and 2020, we found more than 3,000 ads selling wildlife on dark web marketplaces. We searched these marketplaces for keywords related to trade in wild animals and species names.
What was for sale? Of the 153 species we found, we verified that 68 contained psychoactive chemicals.
The most traded species was a South American tree Mimosa tenuiflora, commonly known as jurema preta, the bark of which contains an extremely potent hallucinogen, DMT. Plants made up the bulk of the species sold, with many coming from Central and South America.
We also found that 19 species of Psilocybe fungi were sold.
Read more: ‘Amazing’: Global demand for exotic pets fuels massive trade in unprotected wildlife
Many species were sold for their purported medicinal properties, and a small number of species were sold for clothing, decoration, or as pets.
Many of the animals we’ve found on the dark web have a long history of illegal trade, such as live African gray parrots, as well as elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn, and the teeth and skins of tigers and lions.
We also found small amounts less commonly documented wildlifeincluding the Goliath beetle, Chinese golden scorpion and Japanese sea cucumber.
The illegal wildlife trade is hard to stop
Worldwide, wildlife trade is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But the regulated market is only a fraction of the whole. To date, CITES protects less than 5% of traded species. The number of live traded species exceeds regulated trade at least three timesby some estimates.
To date, there have been few effective disincentives to deter traffickers from selling illegal wildlife online. Sentences for convicted wildlife traffickers are ineffective, and Australian traffickers even continue to harvest animals after being caught.
Efforts to combat online wildlife trafficking are increasing. A positive recent initiative is the End the online wildlife trade coalition. It is a collaboration between animal NGOs and online platforms such as Facebook, Alibaba and eBay aimed at eradicating online commerce.
While it is critical to tackle the illegal trade on the open web, it is more likely that a greater number of wildlife will emerge on the dark web.
What can be done?
Australia and all other countries that have joined CITES have a responsibility to track wildlife trade over the Internet. Resolutions have been passed at recent CITES conferences to track and report all internet trade – including on the dark web – in an effort to boost monitoring and enforcement of wildlife traded online.
A stumbling block is the legality of online trading, which depends on factors such as the laws of the country or countries involved and whether the sale actually took place.
To stop the trade in iconic Australian strains as shingleback lizards and red-tailed cockatoos should keep an eye out for authorities here which native species are bought and sold online, as well as the species traded in and through Australia.
We have been monitoring the wildlife trade in Australia since 2019, collecting data from over 80 websites and forums.
Datasets like this will be vital in monitoring and combating internet-facilitated wildlife crime as it continues to grow, especially as enforcement drives traffickers into harder-to-access parts of the internet like the dark web.
Read more: New exposé of Australia’s exotic pet trade shows alarming proliferation of alien, endangered and illegal species