Facebook Is a Black Market For Vietnam’s Wildlife Traffickers

A year-long investigation revealed that Facebook has unwillingly become a safe haven for wildlife smugglers.

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Nov 15 2016, 6:51pm

Illegal wildlife property. Image: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Investigators with the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC)—a global organization of environmental crime experts—have been infiltrating smuggling groups in the Vietnamese town of Nhi Khe for more than 12 months. Their probes revealed that US $53.1 million in rhino horn, ivory, tiger parts, and trafficked species, such as pangolin, were attributed to 51 dealers in Nhi Khe last year.

This week, an international forum in The Hague, Netherlands concluded that Vietnam's government could do more to crack down on its illegal wildlife trade. At a public hearing, originally called for by WJC, a panel delivered recommendations to Vietnamese authorities, with an emphasis on detecting smuggling rampant on social media like Facebook.

The organization discovered that private Facebook groups, where members must be invited by the group's owner, are being used as de facto black marketplaces to deal and solicit trafficked animal parts. In a report by The Guardian, who previewed the investigation's findings, Facebook is used mainly to sell ivory wares and products. Once approved by a group's administrator, clientele across southeast Asia are able to keep in touch with dealers via instant messaging. Money exchanges are usually handled through WeChat Wallet, the Chinese messaging platform's payment functionality.

Customs officials seize ivory tusks, rhino horns, and leopard skins in Hong Kong, China. Image: International Fund for Animal Welfare

When contacted by Motherboard, a spokesperson for Facebook said the company "does not allow the sale and trade of endangered animals and we will not hesitate to remove any content that violates our Community Standards when it is reported to us."

As per the company's Community Standards, criminal activity that causes the physical harm of animals, including the coordination of wildlife trafficking, is prohibited on its platform.

Facebook also claims to have worked with NGOs and authorities—the exact scope of which is unknown—to receive tips about wildlife trafficking by its users. The company maintains the right to delete accounts and posts if abuse is detected, but Facebook's approach to alleged instances of smuggling are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Over the last few years, social media and ecommerce sites have seen an uptick in wildlife trading activity, both legal and illegal. In May, officials discovered that illegal plant species were being sold across country borders on eBay and Amazon. And recently, the international wildlife treaty CITES ruled that authorities must seek out the trade of pet cheetahs on Instagram and Facebook.

However, despite the evidence WJC provided to the Vietnamese government regarding Nhi Khe crime groups, little has been done to shut down the network.

"We have provided the Vietnamese authorities a detailed case file with everything necessary to prosecute these criminals and close down their operations. We have offered assistance and worked with stakeholders to encourage the Vietnamese authorities to act, but so far to no avail," Olivia Swaak-Goldman, WJC executive director, said in a statement.

According to WJC, the 579 rhinos traded through the criminal network represent nearly 50 percent of all South African rhinos killed in 2015.

In their recommendations, the international panel pushed for better protection of whistleblowers; more criminal proceedings in addition to administrative sanctions; probes into tax law violation by alleged dealers; and the establishment of task forces to detect wildlife crime on social media.

A spokesperson for WJC wrote in a tweet today that it's "not the end of the process, we will continue to work to achieve action."