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Covid-19 causes illegal wildlife trade to go virtual6 min read

June 16, 2021 4 min read


Covid-19 causes illegal wildlife trade to go virtual6 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Do you remember what happened during the first lockdown last year? Businesses across the world shut their doors and they all became virtual for a time period. And even new businesses popped up since the pandemic led to us needing newer things! So the problem is this; since most businesses were able to go virtual, more and more platforms sprang up to support this. Why is this a problem, you may ask. Well, because, businesses that benefited from this move were not just the legal ones.

One particularly awful business that has also gone digital trafficking or smuggling of wild animals. Yup. Smugglers are now using social media and other online platforms to sell animal or animal products illegally!

Owliver’s Obscure Observation:

*Data from the fourth edition of the Counter Wildlife Trafficking Digest of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), released May 21 this year, indicate that seizures of pangolin parts in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand dropped significantly in 2020, with 48 incidents in 2020 compared to 82 in 2019. The total volume of seizures also fell sharply to 9,765 kilograms (10.8 tons) of pangolin products from 2019’s 155,795 kg (171.7 tons).

*Data from Mongabay

But they could have gone virtual a long time ago?

Maybe. But the pandemic, if you remember the early days, put the spotlight on wildlife trade, as reports started to emerge on the health risks associated with consuming wild animals. So, the whole business had to go underground and find other ways to survive.

The trade seemed to have shifted online almost completely post Covid with traffickers finding new routes to reach customers. Remember when your parents told you that the web is a dark and mysterious place? Well, it’s true and that’s why it is that much harder to track these offenders!

Social media, especially, is a haven for those engaged in this trade, but worry not! It is also a great way to control such activities.

For example, a report in the Times of India pointed out how traffickers were using YouTube videos to sell pangolins and tiger skins, and interestingly, it was the comments on the videos that led authorities to the criminals! So the next time you see a funky comment on a top about baby elephants or tigers, you know what you need to do!  

Artist Rohan Chakravarty’s cartoon strip Green Humour often tackles topics such as smuggling of wild animals. Credit: Green Humour

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

The Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online is a partnership between companies, such as Google, Facebook, TikTok and eBay, and leading conservation organisations World Wildlife Fund, TRAFFIC and International Fund for Animal Welfare to reduce illegal wildlife trade through web-based platforms.

Since this smuggling moved onto social media, Facebook and Instagram launched pop-up messages informing users about the illegal trade when certain wildlife-related search words are entered. For example, if a user searches for a certain protected species along with a commercial activity such as ‘buy’ or ‘sell’, a pop-up appears to remind them of the illegality of what they are searching for.

Facebook also says that its users can directly report the sale of live animals and animal products on both Facebook and Instagram directly on the platform.

What are the most-trafficked animals in the world?

African Elephant. Credit: National Geographic
  • Pangolin – The pangolin is the most-trafficked animal in the world. Its scales – used in traditional Chinese medicine – and meat are highly sought-after.
  • African Rhino – The horns of these mammals are used in all kinds of medicines.
  • African Elephant – Despite a ban in the trade of elephant ivory, it continues to be heavily trafficked.
  • Tiger – Apart from being trafficked for tourism reasons, tiger skin, claws, teeth and other body parts are sold for thousands of dollars.
  • Hawksbill Turtle – These are the most trafficked of all turtles because their colourful shells are used to make ornaments and jewelry.
  • Orangutan – These animals are considered a status symbol when kept as pets.
  • Snow Leopards – These gorgeous big cats are trafficked for their striking looks.

What’s coming next?

A survey done for National Geographic by the Centre for Advanced Defence Studies found that global seizures of ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales averaged at almost 530 a year from 2015 through 2019. In 2020, there were 466 seizures – much less than the 964 seizures in 2019. 

Seized pangolin scales. Credit: ABC News

However, some experts say that online sales and a post-pandemic boost in the trade is what we should be getting ready for. Recently in Nigeria, Africa, customs officials found kgs and kgs of pangolin scales hidden in a shipping container supposedly carrying furniture supplies. Another shipment bound for Vietnam was found carrying elephant ivory and lion bones!

So, as traffickers get smarter, we have to be two steps ahead to outsmart them. More and more diseases are jumping species and this is partly due to the terrible conditions of wet meat markets and illegal trade of wildlife and their products. It’s all hands on deck now!We know traffickers are stockpiling products not just in Africa, but also in Asia—in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia—in huge quantities. The worry now is that with increased flights and other travel, they’ll quickly sell stored contraband, and pent-up demand will fuel an explosion of animal poaching.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

A recent report by the United Nations Development Program points out that pandemic forced many wildlife traffickers to use the sea route – cargo ships and containers – to carry on their trade. This was mostly due to the restrictions in air travel and fewer chances to carry illegal items on passenger ships.

Now that we’ve read a list of the most-trafficked animals, can you identify what which animal among them is in the puzzle below? Go ahead, give it a try!

Sources: National Geographic, Mongabay, Times of India, Al Jazeera

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