Southeast Asia has long been an epicenter for the illegal wildlife trade but now, it appears, traders are increasingly turning to social media sites like Facebook to sell their stock. Wildlife trade specialists TRAFFIC released a report, "Trading Places", this week highlighting the extent of the trend.
For 23 days in July 2016, researchers spent 30 minutes a day scouring Thai Facebook for posts selling and distributing live animals. Within that time, they reported 756 posts that, combined, showed a total of 1,521 animals from 200 different species for sale. What's more, they discovered 12 Facebook groups devoted to the trade with a combined membership of 106,111 – but, as they point out, a trader may be a member of more than one group. This may mean that some people have been counted more than once.
The study was followed up two years later and the results are depressing. While two of the Facebook groups no longer existed and another became secret, the largest group has doubled its membership from 27,503 in July 2016 to over 68, 000 in July 2018, while total membership figures have doubled to 203,445.
Mammals appear to be the most popular group of animals to sell and buy with 516 individuals for up for sale within the 23-day timeframe, the most common being the Sunda Slow Lorises (Nycticebus coucang) at 139 individuals. But the birds were far more varied with 95 species cropping up on Facebook during the same period in 2016. Amphibians were the least popular with just 10 animals and four species for sale.
In what is possibly a sliver of a silver lining, only two species found for sale are animals labeled as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. These were the Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) and the Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis). Experts believe the Siamese crocodiles were most likely sourced from captive breeding operations – there is an estimated 700,000 crocs captive in farms across Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
So, what now?
There is legislation in Thailand that is designed to restrict the illegal wildlife trade but clearly, it is lacking. The Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act (WARPA) only protects a little more than half the animals found in the study (53 percent) and covers very few non-native species. Not only is it limited in its coverage, it contains several loopholes and only enforces low penalties, TRAFFIC writes. Tougher enforcement – and extending protections to non-native species – would be a positive first step, they advise.
“Giving such species protection under Thailand’s law and enabling enforcers to take action is the strongest way to address this critical conservation problem,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, Acting Regional Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement.
Facebook recently joined the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online and is currently working with organizations like TRAFFIC to tackle the growing problem.