Moving Targets: Tracking Online Sales Of Illegal Wildlife .

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TRAFFICB R I E F I N GXiao Yu and Wang JiaMOVING TARGETS: TRACKINGONLINE SALES OF ILLEGAL WILDLIFEPRODUCTS IN CHINAFebruary 2015KEY POINTS: More than half ofthe illegal productsoffered comprise ivoryitems. Regular removalof advertisementsof concern has ledto a dramatic andsustained drop inthe number of suchadvertisementsappearing online. However, thedramatic drop shouldnot give cause forcomplacency: theirnumber still remainshigh, while of particularnote and concern isthe rising incidences ofonline sales of illegalgoods through socialmedia forums. New avenues needto be explored tointerdict illegal trade,such as co-operationwith logistics andfinance companieswho ultimately areinvolved in facilitatingthe online transactions.Ivory product in ChinaBACKGROUNDThe Internet has revolutionized communications world-wide, providing amechanism for information dissemination and a medium for collaborationand interaction between individuals, regardless of their geographiclocation. As of 1st July 2014, according to “Internet Live Stats” there weremore than 2.9 billion internet users, just over 40% of the world population(see Figure 1). China, with more than 641 million internet users, has theworld’s biggest online community1.Figure 1: Internet Users in the worldAs the number of internet users rises, e-commerce is booming. Accordingto a February 2013 report on eMarketer, the value of Business to Consumer(B2C) trade in China was about 110 billion USD in 2012, with online trade(B2C and Consumer to consumer (C2C)) estimated to rise to USD 274.6billion by 20142. Given the high volume of e-commerce transactions andsales, there is an occurrence of illicit trade activities. The internet allowsthose involved in criminal online activities to interact under cover, hide1 (accessed 1st July 2014)BR IEFI NG PAPER Regular onlinemonitoring by TRAFFIC,particularly from2012 onwards, ofChinese-languagee-commerce platformsand websites hasrevealed a largenumber of onlineadvertisements forillegal wildlife goods.2 1009649 (accessed 5th February 2013)1

their true identities and carry out their onlinetransactions relatively unseen. Therefore,website monitoring is vital to understand thelevel and scope of illegal wildlife trade online.In 2006, TRAFFIC undertook an 8-month surveyof selected Chinese language websites andplatforms in mainland China, Taiwan and HongKong SAR. Initial results revealed that significantquantities of endangered species productswere being sold through the internet: 332ivory products3 and 193 rhino horn productswere detected. Clearly, comprehensive onlinemonitoring of online sales was warranted. In2010, TRAFFIC began routinely surveying onlinemarkets, initially through simply countingthe number of advertisements selling illegalwildlife products. The results were shared withlaw enforcement agencies through workshopsheld in conjunction with China’s ManagementAuthority for CITES (Convention on InternationalTrade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna andFlora) in 2010 and 2011. These initial studieshighlighted the need for a more thoroughunderstanding of the trade in order to improvethe methods to detect and deter it. In late2011, a comprehensive programme of onlinemonitoring in China began, with the resultsroutinely shared with website and platformmanagers and with enforcement agenciessuch as the National Forest Police Bureau.TRAFFIC has also carried out regular training ofe-commerce professionals, covering a range ofrelevant issues, including the latest code wordsused to conceal illegal transactions, changes inlegislation, and species identification.MARKET MONITORINGBRI EF ING PAPERE-commerce platforms and websites:In January 2012, TRAFFIC began closely tracking15 selected websites for five key illegal wildlifeproducts (ivory, rhino horn, tiger bone, hawksbillshells and pangolin scales), and routinelysearching for 12 code words known to be usedas cover for these illegal products. The scopeof monitoring has been continually expandedand adapted through the addition of newproducts, websites and particularly new codewords. Continual adaptation is necessary asillegal dealers have expanded the range of codewords used to describe their products, largelyin response to the rising number of terms beingblocked and related advertisements being3 Although limited legal ivory trade exists in China, online trading in ivory2is not permitted and is thus illegal.deleted, owing to TRAFFIC’s feedback to websitemanagers (Table 1). For example, initially, theonly code words used online for ivory were“象牙, XY, xiangya”; by September 2014, therewere already 22 code words for ivory, includingterms for ivory such as ”African materials, yellowmaterials, white plastic, jelly”. In total, TRAFFIChas currently identified at least 64 code wordsfor these monitored illegal wildlife products.As of the end of September 2014, TRAFFICcontinues to routinely monitor 25 e-commerceand antique selling websites every month foreight specific wildlife products (ivory, rhino horn,Tiger bone, hawksbill shells, pangolin scales,leopard bones, Saiga horn and Hornbill casques),searching for 64 terms used to describe illegalproducts. In the beginning, TRAFFIC’s expertsmanually searched for product names andrespective code words on monitored websitesand recorded findings in a database. Data werethen screened to remove duplications and toverify adverts.Recently, TRAFFIC started applying automatedsearching and screening methods. Themonthly total number of illegal wildlife productadvertisements (TWPA) and the number ofnew wildlife products advertisements (NWPA)are recorded. Every code word is searchedindividually on each website, and the resultsrecorded (including web links, title, descriptionand seller), which are then sent separately toeach website/platform owner to allow them todelete the respective posts. As a result of thisfeedback, several website/platform managersblock certain code words so that they canno longer be used to advertise products, butwebsites managers cannot block all code wordsbecause some of them are often used for legalproducts. The combined monthly monitoringresults are also sent to relevant enforcementagencies.Certain characteristics help to distinguish fakefrom genuine wildlife products, e.g. throughexamination of written product descriptionsand images posted online, particularly thoseinvolving ivory, rhino horn, hawksbill shell,pangolin scale, hornbill casque and saiga horn.With advertisements for Tiger and leopardbones, where it is difficult to distinguish fakesfrom genuine products visually, the seller’sdetailed description is used as a basis forinformed judgment. It is also recognized that

Table 1: Evolution of TRAFFIC’s online and e-commerce monitoring (2012 – September 2014)No. ofNo. ofwebsitesproducts2012.1155Ivory, RH, TB, HS, PS92012.5245Ivory, RH, TB, HS, PS122012.7246Ivory, RH, TB, HS, PS, LB202012.8247Ivory, RH, TB, HS, PS, LB, SH302012.10247Ivory, RH, TB, HS, PS, LB, SH372013.1248Ivory, RH, TB, HS, PS, LB, SH, HC402013.7258Ivory, RH, TB, HS, PS, LB, SH, HC572014.6258Ivory, RH, TB, HS, PS, LB, SH, HC642014.9258Ivory, RH, TB, HS, PS, LB, SH, HC64TimeProducts*No. of key words forall products*Rhino horn RH, Tiger bone TB, hawksbill shells HS, pangolin scales PS, leopard bones LB, Saigahorn SH, Hornbill casque HCIn JanuaryTRAFFIC discoveredalmost 30,000 advertisementsfor e-comfive illegal wildlifeTable1: 2012,Evolutionof TRAFFIC’sonline andproducts on the 15 websites surveyed (Figure 2). This figure rose to more than 50,000 in the nextmercemonitoring (January 2012 – September 2014)two months but dropped again in April 2012 to around 30,000 after TRAFFIC contacted andshared the monitoring results with website managers, several of whom immediately deleted theidentified advertisements. Thereafter the number of TWPA once again rose, as TRAFFIC began tomonitor more websites (24 from May 2012) and additional products (Leopard bones from July2012, Saiga horn from August 2012 and hornbill casque from January 2013), while the number ofcode words searched also increased to 37 by October 2014. Overall, the TWPA remainedrelatively steady because of the increasing efforts by website managers to block various codewords and remove offending advertisements.In January 2012, TRAFFIC discovered almost30,000 advertisements for five illegal wildlifeproducts on the 15 websites surveyed (Figure2).This figure rose to more than 50,000 in theFigure 2: Number of total illegal wildlife product advertisements (TWPA) in monitoredChinese-language(January 2012-September2014)nexttwo websitesmonthsbut droppedagain in April2012 to around 30,000 after TRAFFIC contactedand shared the monitoring results with websitemanagers, several of whom immediately deletedthe identified advertisements. Thereafter thenumber of TWPA once again rose, as TRAFFICbegan to monitor more websites (24 from May2012) and additional products (Leopard bonesfrom July 2012, Saiga horn from August 2012 andhornbill casque from January 2013), while thenumber of code words searched also increased to37 by October 2014. Overall, the TWPA remained700006000050000relatively steady because of the increasing effortsby website managers to block various code wordsand remove offending advertisements.TRAFFIC’s ongoing training, guidance and sharingof information with managers of websitescontributed to a steady and significant drop inthe number of TWPA in the first half of 2013: itfell sharply to fewer than 10,000 advertisementsand has remained there ever since, with onlyslight variance. This drop is remarkable, as thescope of the monitoring has been increasingcontinuously during that time (see Table 1), butis still problematic given that it concerns highlyendangered or threatened species. Nevertheless,the demand for illegally traded wildlife productscould not be reduced by removing advertisementsfrom e-commerce platforms. It also has to beacknowledged that there are transactions ofillegal wildlife products, which were not capturedby TRAFFIC’s monitoring. This indicates thattrade volumes of illegal wildlife products one-commerce platforms might be even higher.A more accurate reflection of the levels andtrends within the online illegal wildlife trade isprovided through the number of new wildlifeproducts advertisements (NWPA) posted onlineeach month. The NWPA removes the influenceof old advertisements that have already beenrecorded meaning new trade trends can beobserved more quickly (Figure 3). FollowingTRAFFIC’s monitoring and feedback to websitemanagers resulting in advertisement removal,the NWPA fell dramatically to around 1500 fromJuly 2012 and has remained around that levelever since, despite some variation caused by theintroduction of additional website and code 0000100000150010005000BRI EF ING PAPERsellers may use images that do not represent theactual products on offer, while not all consumersare able to identify genuine products, so someadvertisements may erroneously be includedwithin the statistics as representing illegalwildlife products, although advertisements forclearly fake products are excluded from theresults. TRAFFIC has also developed protocolsfor dealing with duplicate information—whenadvertisementsthe assameproductsappearerroneously be included withinforthe statisticsrepresentingillegal wildlife products,althoughonadvertisements for clearly fake products are excluded from the results. TRAFFIC has alsoseveraldifferent websites, often referring back todeveloped protocols for dealing with duplicate information—when advertisements for the samethesameIn thesecases,duplicateproductsappear on dealers.several different websites,often referringback to thethesame dealers.In thesecases, the duplicate information will be counted as a single data point.information will be counted as a single data point.Figure 3: Number of monthly new wildlife products adFigure 2: Number of total illegal wildlife product adBecause of the rising number of websites, products and code words used in monitoring, directvertisements(NWPA) (January 2012-September 2014)vertisements(TWPA)in monitoredChinese-languageTRAFFIC’songoing training,guidanceand sharing of informationwith managers of websitesledcomparisonbetween different months is not possible. TRAFFIC therefore developed an index 4websites(January2014)toa steady andsignificant 2012-Septemberdrop in the number of TWPAin the first half of 2013: it fell sharplyto on the NWPA per product per website to compare trends in illegal online wildlife tradebasedfewer than 10,000 advertisements and has remained there ever since. This is remarkable, asthe 4).(Figurescope of the monitoring has been increasing continuously during that time (see Table 1), but is3still problematic given that it concerns highly endangered or threatened species.Figure 4: Number of monthly new wildlife advertisements per products per websites (January2012 - September 2014)

150010005000Because of the rising number of websites,products and code words used in monitoring,Becausedirectof the risingnumber of websites,products and codewords used inmonitoring, directcomparisonbetweendifferentmonthscomparison between different months is not possible. TRAFFIC therefore developed an index 4is not possible. TRAFFIC therefore developedbased on the NWPA per product per website to compare trends in illegal online wildlife trade(Figure an4). index based on the NWPA per product perwebsite to compare trends in illegal onlineFigure 4: Number of monthly new wildlife advertisements per products per websites (Januarywildlife trade (Figure 4).2012 - September 2014)5045403530252015105-Of the eight monitored products, ivory remainsthe most frequently advertised, generallycomprising over half of the new advertisementsposted each month (Figure 5).At the beginning of the survey there were 57new advertisements for ivory products perwebsite. This peaked at 136 in March 2012,then decreased to 39 in July 2012, following thepublic declaration by the 15 leading e-commercesellers. Following this development, theindex fluctuated between 20 and 50 for thenext 24 months, averaging around 35 newadvertisements for ivory products on each ofthe monitored websites.Social Media:Figure 4: Number of monthly new wildlife advertise-Starting at 19 new advertisements per product per website in January 2012, the index peaked atmentsper websites(January201245 in March2012 perbeforeproductssharply decreasingto 11 in July 2012where it hasbeen-at or below untilSeptember2014)September2014.Starting19 newadvertisementsperproductThe dramaticfour-foldatdecreasefrom July2012 occurred shortly aftera workshopheld on 23rdJune 2012,by the NationalForest PoliceBureau theand in indexcollaborationwith China CITESperconvenedwebsitein January2012,peaked4at 45 in March 2012 before sharply decreasingto 11 in July 2012 where it has been at or belowuntil September 2014.BRI EF ING PAPERThe index is calculated as: NWPA of one month/the number of species *the number of websites monitored byTRAFFIC at this monthIn March 2014, TRAFFIC began research into therising use of social media platforms to sell illegalwildlife products. Initial researches revealeddealers release photos and information aboutillegal wildlife products in order to attract andinteract with potential customers. In contrastto posted advertisements on regular websites,which can be seen by all visitors, social mediaaudiences can be selected by dealers and aregenerally based on personal introductions. Thisprivacy means that sellers are better protectedand monitoring is more challenging.The dramatic four-fold decrease from July 2012occurred shortly after a workshop held on 23rdJune 2012, convened by the National Forest PoliceBureau and in collaboration with China CITESSome social media dealers use “agents” to extendManagement Authority and TRAFFIC, where 15their audiences. Agents re-post informationof the leading e-commerce sellers operating inabout illegal wildlife products onto their ownManagementAuthority and TRAFFIC,whereTaobao,15 of the leadingsellers operating inChina, includingAlibaba,ande-commerceTencent,socialmedia platform and, if someone in theirChina, including Alibaba, Taobao, and Tencent, signed a declaration stating they hadasigned a declaration stating they had a zerozero-tolerance policy towards their services being used to conduct illegal wildlife wants to buy the product(s), the agent sedfive and 10 untilFollowingthat publicdeclaration,the NWPAhas fluctuatedbetweenit from the dealer and resells it at a higher priceto conductwildlifetrading.September2014; or illegalaround 1500new advertisementsper Followingmonth across thethat25 monitored the contact within their circle. In this manner,public declaration, the NWPA index has fluctuateddealers can sell their products quickly and getOf the eight monitored products, ivory remains the most frequently advertised, generallybetween five and 10 until September 2014; orcomprising over half of the new advertisements posted each month (Figure 5).more people involved in the selling. Monitoringaround 1500 new advertisements per monthsocial media retailing presents considerableFigure5: Numberof newivory product advertisements(January 2012-September 2014)acrossthe 25monitoredsites.challenges. The operation of most social media160platforms means only “recognized” members140can see information posted by a dealer within120his social media contacts. Dealers also check100their followers regularly and may block those80who never buy products or post updates (as60it indicates that these users rarely use this40account) or those who regularly ask questions.20This makes it difficult for researchers to maintaina presence on these discreet internet circles.TRAFFIC is currently developing new surveymethods and research techniques to overcomesuch challenges. Despite the inherent difficultiesFigure5: Numberof newivoryproductadvertisementsAt the beginningof the surveythere were57 newadvertisementsfor ivory products per website.This peaked 2012-Septemberat 136 in March 2012, 2014)then decreased to 39 in July 2012, following the publicin monitoring such trade, TRAFFIC’s research(Januarydeclaration by the 15 leading e-commerce sellers. Following this development, the indexfluctuated between 20 and 50 for the next 24 months, averaging around 35 new advertisementsfor ivory products on each of the monitored websites.4 The index is calculated as: NWPA of one month/the number of species *the number of4websitesmonitored by TRAFFIC at this monthSocialMedia:In March 2014, TRAFFIC began investigations into the rising use of social media to sell illegalwildlife goods. Initial investigations revealed dealers release photos and information about illegalwildlife products in order to attract and interact with potential customers. In contrast to posted

has revealed that considerable quantities ofillegal wildlife products are bought through socialmedia channels. Table 2 provides a summary ofthe number of transactions found on one socialTable 2: Examples of advertisements for illegal wildlife products posted on social mediamediaplatform during the course of one month.within one monthRhino: EntireSocial mediaIvoryaccounttusksIvory segmentshorns or hornHelmetedpieces andhornbillworkedcasqueIvory itemsproducts, etc.Dealer 160 100 Dealer 2254Dealer 32670 Dealer 4511Dealer 571115Dealer 61530 2115 276 77 Total1050 eds46 thousandsThe data in Table 2 show that significant amounts of illegal wildlife products are being soldthrough social media. That is why it is imperative that investigators and enforcement agencies –as well as social media platform administrators – concentrate their efforts on monitoring anddeterring illegal wildlife trade on social media.Table 2: Ex

Chinese-language e-commerce platforms and websites has revealed a large number of online advertisements for illegal wildlife goods. More than half of the illegal products offered comprise ivory items. Regular removal of advertisements of concern has led to a dramatic and sustained dr

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