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Illegal Wildlife Trade Thrives on Facebook, Internet Forums
By Ajit Niranjan
The lizards are frantic and the turtles plodding, but both scrabble to escape the perspex containers that hold them. The reptiles, some in small boxes and fetching prices of up to thousands of euros, are on sale at the Terraristika — Europe's largest reptile trade fair and a suspected wildlife-trafficking hub.
Thousands of enthusiasts descend on the German city of Hamm four times a year to buy exotic creatures ranging from coin-sized glass frogs to tarantulas and venomous snakes. In the wild, some of these animals are becoming dangerously scarce.
As well as the physical marketplace, the Terraristika is a center of a global online community of reptile traders and hobbyists. Customers browse animals on the web and collect them at the fair, sometimes on the unsupervised fringes of the event. Sellers arrange pickups via Facebook groups, owners share care tips on internet forums and YouTubers post videos of themselves "unboxing" animals bought at fairs.
The researchers found most adverts in internet forums, not social media, but they also saw closed Facebook groups with names suggesting they are used to trade reptiles.
Visitors to the Terraristika can buy all kinds of reptiles, including snakes.
DW also found endangered reptiles for sale in Facebook groups such as 'Terraristika Hamm — "MARKTPLATZ"' and 'Hamm and Houten Reptile Classifieds.'
Some of the species on offer are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an agreement signed by 183 countries that restricts trade in threatened wildlife. The animals were not necessarily poached — specimens of endangered species are often bred in captivity — but conservation groups fear that, because online trade is so difficult to regulate, endangered animals are being trafficked online.
In one group, a buyer complained that lizards he'd bought over Facebook didn't survive being delivered by post. "Pay me 1200 euro [sic]," he wrote in a private message to the seller accompanied by a laughing emoji, a screenshot of which he posted in the group. "You sent dead animals."
Hiding in Plain Sight
Facebook refused multiple requests for comment. Confronted with screenshots, a spokesperson from a PR firm acting on the company's behalf thanked DW for "sharing the examples of groups advertising endangered animals." Facebook then deleted the groups.
Facebook's commercial policy states that posts may not promote the sale of animals. It is a member of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, a partnership between internet companies and conservation groups, along with tech giants such as eBay, Baidu and Google.
But conservation groups fear the ease with which live animals can be bought on Facebook and other platforms has opened up the market for smugglers. Online wildlife trade is an "extreme problem" because it makes endangered animals available to "every normal person," said Katharina Lameter, a biologist at conservation group Pro Wildlife.
Some reptiles traded online are subject to bans or regulations under the CITES convention.
"That means anyone can advertise, there can be an incredible number of species on offer and anyone can buy these animals without ever having seen them. Often the animals are shipped off or picked up at reptile trade fairs," Lameter told DW.
Unlike drugs or weapons, wildlife is rarely traded on the darknet, a corner of the internet used to anonymously buy illegal goods — and what does appear there is mostly body parts such as elephant tusks, rhino horns and pangolin scales. Live animals are scarce, with traders preferring regular platforms that have access to bigger markets.
"Cybercrime is under the spotlight because the internet is an easy platform to place and to offer illegal goods anonymously … including wildlife," said Sergio Tirro, head of environmental crime analysis at Europol. "It's easy to hide the financial flow by using a prepaid card."
Legal loopholes also cause headaches for law enforcement trying to catch traffickers in the act. For instance, Germany is at the center of the illegal trade in Sri Lankan reptiles, according to an investigation published in April by wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC.
More than half of Sri Lankan reptile species are threatened and the government has banned the export of almost all live reptiles. But they are not all protected internationally under CITES, meaning animals smuggled over in violation of Sri Lankan law can be freely traded in Europe.
Traffic found species "extremely vulnerable to overexploitation" being sold in Facebook groups and classified reptile forums. The number of online adverts offering endangered reptiles, including those endemic to Sri Lanka, rises in the run-up to the quarterly Terraristika fair.
Reptiles are popular pets and trade happens on and offline, like at this fair.
In the bustling warehouse where the Terraristika takes place, sellers eagerly describe their species' "exotic" origins — Sri Lanka, Mexico, Vietnam — but say the specimens they offer were bred in captivity in Europe, not smuggled from abroad.
But with deals taking place in nearby car parks, hotel bars and under tables at the fair itself, authorities struggle to police this. Styrofoam boxes of reptiles change hands off-site before the fair has even begun. Traders who arrange car park deals over the internet need not register a stall with the Terraristika organizers or submit themselves to checks in order to find buyers.
Terraristika did not respond to a request for comment. In a public statement in August responding to questions from German news agency dpa, Terraristika said it works with authorities to prevent illegal activities, but was not responsible if animals were misclassified with false documentation, just as an antiques market could not guarantee vendors wouldn't offer stolen goods.
Yet the internet and digital media are also being used in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking. Europol's Sergio Tirro said customs officers often take photos of suspicious specimens and send them immediately to experts to identify. Reptiles such as turtles can have minor physical differences between species that are endangered and not.
"You don't need to see the animal physically," said Tirro.
"When you have very precise pictures you can detect it. You don't need to travel all around the world to see if an animal belongs to a protected species."
And not all internet platforms are affected. DW did not find reptiles for sale on eBay, which said its open marketplace does not lend itself to trade in living creatures because every posting is completely public. Conservation groups confirmed this.
Ebay said it uses algorithms to search for suspicious keywords and alert human enforcers who can remove them. Some terms such as ivory are automatically banned by block filters, so sellers receive a warning message as soon as they try to post an advert with a banned word.
It's unclear if Facebook uses similar methods, but DW found several posts offering endangered species by typing the animals' Latin names into the Facebook search bar.
Conservation groups encourage tougher rules and stricter enforcement from internet platforms. But they caution that as one platform cracks down on wildlife trade, traders simply move to others that are less regulated.
"It would be best if online trade in live animals were completely banned," said Lameter from Pro Wildlife.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DW.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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