REVIEW | Hidden in plain sight: the online face of the illegal wildlife trade

Laure Joanny reviews recent discussions about the illicit online trade in wildlife.

Laure Joanny recently attended the International Conference on Environmental Crime, University of Cardiff, and the Oxford Martin Symposium on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. Here, she summarises the key debates from panellists Anita Lavorgna, Joss Wright and David Roberts, all of whom carry out research into the illicit online trade in wildlife.


The online wildlife trade is a perfect reminder that if digital technologies can be a great ally in efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade (IWT), they can also enable it. Studying the sale of plants, live animals and wildlife products online illustrates both the mundanity and variety of the illegal wildlife trade. Indeed, alongside the headline news items about decapitated rhinos and organised criminal syndicates, a world of opportunistic newcomers dealing in endangered species products, from black caviar and to rare cacti, has emerged online.

The latest research shows that the internet offers new opportunities for sellers and potential buyers to communicate and connect over niche interests. As the web makes it easier to enter the market, it allows new individuals to enter the IWT, generate most of their income from it, and compete with more organised transnational criminal networks structured around different individuals involved at different stages of the traffic: harvesting of wildlife, smuggling, forgery of import/export documents, sale etc.

Unlike the sale of firearms or drugs, most of this trade does not appear to be happening on the encrypted dark net; rather, it takes place on generalist marketplaces such as Amazon or Alibaba, on social media or on specialised forums e.g. websites entirely dedicated to orchids. These more narrowly focused platforms are rarely named in studies for ethical reasons but if you know where to look and what keywords to use, illegal wildlife products are readily available: they are hidden in plain sight.

These insights illustrate the fact that the illegal wildlife trade is a not a homogenous phenomenon. It does not only concern high profile species such as rhinos and elephants, but a myriad of plants and animals that non-specialists would find hard to accurately identify. The target customers and end users also vary enormously: from plants and animal parts used for their supposed medicinal properties or as status symbols, to prized items in hobbyists’ collection or animal lovers’ menageries. Moreover, the online market often allows sellers to present protected species as legal products; for instance, through uploading outdated legal documents or briefly describing how it came into their possession, thereby reassuring potential buyers.

The majority this trade, like the legal trade in wildlife products from high end fashion to luxury foods, is far less spectacular than stories about hacked off elephant tusks being whisked away by helicopter, but it is just as damaging to the survival of species. Therefore, despite our still limited understanding of the online face of IWT, the question of how best to intervene is pressing. Organisations like TRAFFIC are partnering with online commerce platforms such as Alibaba to shut down online sales of illegal wildlife products. Conservationists are working to design tools that would enable law enforcement personnel to automatically and efficiently scroll through platforms where illegal wildlife items might be on sale. However, cracking down on access to certain platforms is not necessarily the most helpful as the trade is likely sprout up again in less accessible locations. To halt IWT, therefore, the focus should remain on demand reduction. There are numerous actions in that sense, including national campaigns, youth education programmes and awareness raising efforts among tourists, but there still is much to be done.