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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This Earth Month, Starbucks is experimenting with a circular economy.
From March 30 to May 31st, customers at five Seattle Starbucks will be able to order their drink in a reusable cup that they can then deposit themselves at a contactless kiosk or have picked up for them by area recycling service Ridwell.
"Promoting reusability is an important part of Starbucks goal to reduce waste by 50% by 2030," Starbucks Chief Sustainability Officer Michael Kobori said in the program announcement. "We understand the interdependency of human and planetary health, and we believe it is our responsibility to reduce single-use cup waste. We will lead the transition to a circular economy."
Borrow A Cup
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
The Borrow A Cup pilot works like this.
Step 1: Customers will order their drink in a reusable cup and pay a refundable $1 deposit.
Step 2: When they are done, customers will return the cups to a contactless kiosk in the store's lobby or drive-thru. They can then scan the Starbucks App for a $1 credit and 10 Bonus Stars.
Step 3: The cups will be collected and professionally cleaned by GO Box and returned to circulation within 48 hours.
Starbucks said each reusable cup would prevent as many as 30 disposable cups from being wasted.
The new pilot is not the first time the company has experimented with ways to reuse cups, a Starbucks spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email. The company has offered a discount for customers bringing their own containers since the 1980s and has long sold its own reusable thermoses and mugs at its stores. However, the idea of offering cups that can be returned to the store later is rather new. In 2019, it launched a month-long reusable cup trial at London's Gatwick airport and another test in the Bay Area. To prepare for the current trial, it ran single-store tests in the Seattle area during the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021.
"Those tests were intended to explore operations and logistics for our partners, and used our standard reusable traveler cup, usually available at the cash register," Starbucks explained. "This pilot will explore the scalability of the concept and equipment."
Starbucks did not say exactly how, when, or where the project would be expanded if it succeeds.
"We are optimistic about this program and we look forward to customer feedback as we explore scalable options to reduce single-use cup waste," the company spokesperson said.
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
One unique feature of the Seattle pilot is the partnership with Ridwell. Ridwell is an innovative Seattle-area company that grew out of a father and his six-year-old son's search for a place to safely dispose of batteries, according to the company website. Once they found their answer, they offered to take their neighbor's batteries, too.
The company's mission ignited from this initial spark. Ridwell picks up hard to reuse or recycle items from Seattle homes and finds a way to keep them out of landfills. This made partnering with Starbucks a natural fit. During the trial, the company will pick up the reusable cups from customers' homes.
"Our mission is to make it easy to waste less – just as easy (and hopefully more delightful!) than throwing things away. Offering our members the ability to return their reusable Starbucks cups without leaving their homes or needing to remember to bring them back to the store is a fantastic example of simplifying potential friction in reuse and circular programs at scale," a Ridwell spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email.
Ridwell said it would like to engage in more partnerships like this if the Starbucks trial succeeds.
"We are excited about expanding partnerships that enable a more earth-friendly way for our members to consume the things they enjoy (like a coffee!)," the spokesperson said.
A Tale of Two Markets
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
Environmental campaigners said that the Starbucks pilot is a step in the right direction.
"Greenpeace supports the model that Starbucks is exploring, through which customers essentially rent a reusable container for a deposit that is returned to them when they bring the container back," Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar told EcoWatch in an email. "That container is then washed and cleaned and reused many times, as with other dishes in restaurants we frequent. Not only can this model help our environment and health, it can create new jobs and save businesses money in the long run."
However, Greenpeace argued that Starbucks could be moving faster with implementing this model across the U.S., something that seems to be supported by Starbucks' actions abroad.
The day before Starbucks announced the Seattle pilot, it also said that it would phase out all single-use cups from its South Korea stores by 2025. This will begin with a launch of reusable cups in certain stores in the city of Jeju this summer that will then expand to additional locations over the next four years.
"If Starbucks can eliminate all single-use cups in South Korea by 2025 and shift entirely to reuse, it can do more than implement a trial program here with a goal of reducing waste by 50% by 2030," Hocevar said. "Starbucks' goal should be to eliminate all of its disposable coffee cups as quickly as possible and scale up these reusable programs across all of its markets."
Starbucks, for its part, said that local conditions determined how quickly it could roll out new ideas in different places.
"In some cases, market level conditions allow us to move quickly than others, which in turn allows us to share those learnings in other markets," the company said.
But Greenpeace noted there is another key difference between the U.S. and South Korea. The latter passed a law in 2018 banning disposable cups at sit-down restaurants, and the Environment Minister further revised rules in February to cut down on plastic and other disposable items.
"It definitely appears as though South Korea's recent actions against single-use plastics, particularly for dine-in options, has influenced Starbucks to act with greater urgency there," Hocevar told EcoWatch. "This is part of the reason we need to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act [in the U.S.] and develop a global plastics treaty to move toward reuse urgently."
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As California enters its second consecutive dry year and braces for what could be another devastating wildfire season, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency on Wednesday, in just two counties. The declaration targets Mendocino and Sonoma counties, known for their wineries and grape growing, and where conditions are desperately dry.
Standing in the dry bottom of Lake Mendocino, Newsom said, "Oftentimes we overstate the word historic, but this is indeed an historic moment, certainly historic for this particular lake, Mendocino," according to AP News. The lake is at about 40 percent of its normal capacity. Lake Sonoma, another local reservoir, is only about 62 percent full.
Here in Lake Mendocino, we should be 40 ft. underwater but it’s dry. This is climate change. Today, we declared a… https://t.co/ISsasLAihB— Office of the Governor of California (@Office of the Governor of California)1619034124.0
According to the California Department of Water Resources, this is the state's fourth-driest year on record, especially in the northern parts of the state. At the beginning of the month, state officials announced that snow accumulation in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Cascades was about 40 percent below average levels, The Guardian reported.
Newsom's declaration has already faced criticism from state officials and farmers in the Central Valley, who say the governor's approach isn't sufficient to address the drought that impacts almost all parts of the state.
"(T)he Central Valley can't afford to be overlooked," state Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno) said in a statement, according to The Mercury News. "We need a statewide emergency declaration immediately in order to deliver more water to farmers and growers in the Valley."
To others, the governor's regional approach "sounds like a good idea," Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, told The Mercury News, who added that the governor should not declare a widespread drought too early, to avoid "crying wolf."
Currently, California is in a similar situation to what it experienced six years ago when former Gov. Jerry Brown declared a water emergency. But state officials say today's current drought will be unlike anything seen before, requiring innovative measures, according to CalMatters.
Although the governor has yet to declare a state-wide emergency, officials have been warning Californians of the drought. In March, the California's State Water Resources Control Board, for example, "sent early warnings to 40,000 water rights holders urging them to start conserving," AP News reported.
"If you're in a different part of the state, you probably need to know that this will one day happen to you," Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said of the drought declaration, according to AP News.
In early April, a group of state legislators sent a letter to Newsom urging him to declare a drought emergency, CalMatters reported. "This is the slowest, most foreseeable train wreck imaginable," said Sen. Borgeas, who helped write the letter.
Newsom's reluctance to declare a state-wide emergency may have something to do with his looming recall campaign, set for later this year, according to political strategist Dan Schnur, The Mercury News reported.
"It's hard to think of another explanation about why he'd be tiptoeing around such a critically important issue," Schnur told The Mercury News. "He's clearly very sensitive about pushing voters too hard on water usage in the aftermath of the pandemic restrictions."
Regardless of whether the declaration covers their county, some local water districts are already taking matters into their own hands. In Marin County, for example, adjacent to Sonoma, water officials voted Tuesday to require residents to reduce water use by measures such as not washing vehicles at home or filling backyard pools, AP News reported.
As the state continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and a sluggish economy, scarce resources and the threat of another wildfire season will only ignite further tensions. Acknowledging that water is a "politically fractious issue" in the state, Gov. Newsom urged people not to resort to "old binaries" like urban vs. rural, The Mercury News reported.
"This is California," he said. "We are Californians."
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Much of the conversation surrounding the ecological benefits of tropical rainforests focuses on South America's Amazon. However, the forests of Central Africa are just as important. While the Amazon is the largest contiguous rainforest in the world, Central Africa's rainforests are the world's second largest, Nature reported. They store more carbon per hectare than the Amazon and host a higher concentration of large trees than any other continent.
They are also under threat. A new study published in Nature on Wednesday maps the different forest types present in Central Africa and pinpoints which are most vulnerable to the climate crisis and human activity.
"Africa is forecasted to experience large and rapid climate change and population growth during the twenty-first century, which threatens the world's second largest rainforest," the study authors wrote. "Protecting and sustainably managing these African forests requires an increased understanding of their compositional heterogeneity, the environmental drivers of forest composition and their vulnerability to ongoing changes."
To accomplish this goal, a France-based research team examined data concerning six million trees from more than 180,000 field plots in Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, AFP reported.
The team mapped the forests based on where different plants thrived.
"The forest area of Central Africa is far from being a homogeneous green carpet. It is home to a wide variety of forests with different characteristics, including their own particular carbon storage capacity," Maxime Réjou-Méchain, study lead author and French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) ecologist, said in an IRD press release. "This diversity can be explained by the different types of climate (humidity, temperature, evapotranspiration rate, amount of rainfall) and soils, as well as by the history of the African flora and the degree of human activity that has disturbed the forests for thousands of years, such as shifting agriculture."
The researchers identified 10 types of forest, according to Nature. These include Atlantic coastal evergreens in Gabon and semi-deciduous forests at the northern edge of the Central African study area. The researchers then compared their map with projections for how the region's climate is likely to change by 2085.
Because the various forest types have evolved over time to thrive in different climate niches, the rise in global temperatures might mean that some trees will be less able to adapt to a changing climate.
"[T]he forest margins in the north and south of the region, the Atlantic forests and most of those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to more than half of Central Africa's forests, are among the most vulnerable," Professor Bonaventure Sonké, study coauthor and University of Yaoundé 1 botanist, told IRD.
However, the research also presents a guide to conserving the particular biodiversity of these forests.
"These results must now be used and applied to develop land use plans that preserve forest characteristics while maintaining connections between protected zones through sustainably managed timber production forests," Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury, study coauthor and CIRAD forest ecologist, said in the press release.
While human activity threatens the forests, they are also key resources for the people who live in and near them.
"[R]ainforests in Central Africa and the ecosystem services they provide are intertwined with people's livelihoods and food security," Marion Pfeifer from Newcastle University's School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and Deo Shirima from Tanzania's Sokoine University of Agriculture wrote in Nature. "Developing sustainable management plans that recognize the diversity of the ways in which people interact with and depend on these forests will be a huge challenge. It will require concerted cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral efforts that move beyond national boundaries."
The Race to Save the World is releasing on Virtual Cinema this Earth Day. Instead of focusing on paralyzing facts and numbers this inspiring feature takes a unique approach by following passionate activists, ages 15-72, who are in the trenches fighting for a livable future. These brave climate warriors put their lives on the line to push for change, regardless of the personal cost.
Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Gantz brings an urgent and intimate portrait of the protests, arrests, courtroom drama and family turmoil these activists endure as they single-mindedly focus their attention on the goal of creating a more sustainable world for future generations. "The Race To Save The World" is an inspiring and energizing call-to-action to quit waiting on the sidelines and make our voices heard.
Watch the exclusive Earth Day preview above.
For more on "The Race to Save the World" read Olivia Rosane's article "3 New Films to Watch This Earth Week."
Where to Entire Film Watch: Virtual Cinema
Forty leaders from the world's top greenhouse gas-polluting nations where hosted by the Biden administration on Thursday for an all-virtual summit to discuss the global climate emergency and the pathways — including individual emission reduction goals — that governments must take to stave off the worst impacts of global warming and runaway destruction of the planet's natural systems.
Just ahead of the gathering, President Joe Biden announced new U.S. commitments to meeting the goals set forth in the 2015 Paris climate agreement and said that the nation will now aim to reduce annual carbon output by 52% compared to 2005 levels.
"Our clean energy plan will create millions of good-paying union jobs, ensure our economic competitiveness, and improve the health and security of communities across America," Biden said in a declaration released ahead of the summit. "By making those investments and putting millions of Americans to work, the United States will be able to cut our greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030."
While the most ambitious target ever set forth by an American president — and a total reversal from the destructive policies of his predecessor Donald J. Trump — climate scientists and advocacy groups have been outspoken to say that even Biden's stated goals are simply "not enough" to meet U.S. obligations or keep the world from less than 1.5ºC of warming this century.
Watch the summit above.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.