Pets like these tokay geckos are a big part of the wildlife trade, especially online. Via Michael Yabsley, University of Georgia
Considering how massive the internet is for commerce, it'd be erroneous to think that it's not also equally huge for the wildlife trade. But it's a realm that's under-enforced. The US Fish and Wildlife Service only has a handful of agents focused on internet trade, and while the UK has a dedicated Wildlife Crime Unit, it's only just added its first dedicated internet intelligence officer.
That news comes via an interview by Nic Fleming in New Scientist with Christie Alldridge, described as the "UK's first dedicated online wildlife crime intelligence officer." It's a quick, interesting read, so go check it out, but I wanted to highlight one of Alldridge's responses here, emphasis mine:
So what is your focus in combating wildlife crime over the internet?
We're focusing on trying to work out the volume and scope of online trade. We're also seeking to identify trends related to specific species and locations, investigate whether there are trade routes that overlap with those of other illegal trades such as drugs, and develop a framework for future monitoring of illegal activity. The internet is so vast that nobody can possibly find everything being bought and sold. But it is important to be able to estimate these trades accurately in order to tackle them effectively. Policing resources will only be made available if there is a proven need.
Stopping the illicit flow of goods is an impossible task regardless of where sales are taking place—see also: prohibition, the drug war—but it's interesting to see how candid officials are about acknowledging the vastness of the web. I suppose it's a positive in that trying to pretend the web isn't impossible to monitor completely would be a sign that officials have no idea what they're talking about. But it's also disheartening to think that, even with the web being so crucial to the trade, the UK still only has one person dedicated to developing internet intelligence to combat the wildlife trade.
One last interesting wrinkle: Alldridge also notes that the Wildlife Crime Unit is "aware" of trade going on in the dark web. The bulk of online trade is done fairly visible: People selling recently-harvested ivory on auction sites under the cover of being an antique, or folks on herpetology message boards selling rare snakes that may not be legal to trade—much of the wildlife trade involves pet trading and animal collectors. But as we've seen with big-ticket items like rhino horn, using the deep web or the Tor network is a viable option for trade.
It's also much harder to enforce, as a couple US Fish and Wildlife agents I've spoken to have said. For authorities to truly crack down on the vending side of the trade—which is key for quelling demand, although it won't end it altogether—they need more agents investigating the web. The UK's Wildlife Crime Unit, however, currently has its funding in jeopardy, which means that more eyes on the web trade aren't likely to be coming soon.