Why Aren’t Illegal Wildlife Traders Using the Dark Web?

Unlike those who trade in narcotics, wildlife trackers are sticking to surface sites like Craigslist.

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Mar 2 2016, 12:00pm

Elephant ivory is still available on the surface web. Image: Dianne Blell/Getty

Laws prohibiting illegal wildlife sales online are poorly enforced, which means criminals don't have to resort to the dark net in order to sell their goods, a study published Monday in Conservation Biology found.

In their preliminary study, researchers from the University of Kent in the UK downloaded and archived ads for 9,852 items for sale on the dark web, and subsequently scraped them for 121 keywords associated with wildlife trafficking. The researchers obtained many of their items from well known hidden websites listed on sites like r/DarkNetMarkets and The Hidden Wiki. Notably, none of the websites that the study analyzed required user registration in order to view listings.

Only four of the terms yielded any results, and they were all related to the sale of Echinopsis pachanoi, a kind of cactus with hallucinogenic properties, which isn't endangered.

This initial finding was perplexing. If illegal wildlife sales are on the rise, and are reportedly increasingly advertised on the internet, then why aren't poachers taking the time to anonymize their websites and protect their IP addresses by using Tor? The authors of the study argue that it's because they don't have to.

The trafficking of illegal wildlife is worth an estimated $19 billion globally, according to a 2012 World Wildlife Fund For Nature (WWF) report, while the European Commission estimated last week that organized criminal organizations do 8 to 20 billion euros worth of business in the wildlife trade each year.

Another report released last month from Defenders of Wildlife concluded that from 2014 to 2015, over 330,000 live animals were denied entry to the United States alone because they were being trafficked illegally.

According to a 2014 Newsweek piece, one way that poachers are able to stay online without the help of anonymity software is by using a very low-tech technique: codewords. By subbing in less obvious identifiers, like "ox bone" for elephant ivory, traffickers are able to evade detection without having to resort to the dark net.

"Currently criminals appear to be able to sell their illegal wildlife relatively openly without apparent interference from law enforcement," the authors of the University of Kent study wrote in a draft of the paper.

There's no doubt that wildlife smuggling is thriving on the surface web. According to a 2014 report compiled by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), one intensive six-week investigation found a total of 33,006 endangered animals and wildlife parts for sale on almost 300 different marketplaces across 16 countries. "There is such an abundance of wildlife being traded online openly without repercussion that there is really no need to move the sales underground," IFAW's North America Regional director Jeffrey Flocken told me.

Another reason why the industry might not be moving to Tor sites is that if it were to, its sellers would lose access to buyers who purchase exotic pets and other wildlife parts without knowing that what they're doing is wrong, Flocken explained. He also mentioned that many customers may lack the expertise necessary to access the dark web, unlike customers looking to purchase drugs or firearms.

US Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Catherine Novelli (L) and Chinese State Forestry Administration Minister Zhao Shucong (2nd L) look at a rhino horn during a press preview of confiscated wildlife contraband prior to an event on wildlife trafficking June 24, 2015 at the Department of State in Washington, DC. Image: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Poachers might soon be running into problems on the surface web however, thanks to new technology presented in another paper published at the University of Kent. In 2015, researchers at the school designed an automated algorithm that was able to detect illegal ivory items for sale on eBay. The system was able to achieve close to 93 percent of the accuracy of two law enforcement experts in flagging potentially illegal postings. These kinds of algorithms could help officers to speed up the process of detecting illegal animals online.

Smugglers are also facing opposition from mainstream sites where they have traditionally tried to list their illegal goods. Sites like eBay and Etsy have invested resources in removing illegal listings, but other places like Craigslist have been less willing to dedicate funds to catching sellers, Flocken said. In 2015, $1.5 million worth of ivory was reportedly listed on Craigslist alone in one month, according to another IFAW report.

There's evidence indicating that a large portion of illegal wildlife trade occurs in Asian countries such as China, Indonesia, and Japan, as well as in African nations such as Kenya and Mozambique. The same Defenders of Wildlife report for example, indicated that Indonesia was the number one country from which plants and animals were exported to the US from, accounting for almost 35 percent of the total trafficked organisms.

What this means is that if traffickers are using Tor in order to protect their goods from the eyes of authorities, they just may not be doing so in English, or they might only be carrying out their crimes on sites that that require user registration, which this study did not examine.

In other words, it's completely possible that poachers are using the dark net, but that the researchers of this study weren't able to scrape key terms in other languages, or that the listings were protected on sites where you have to become a user or get a referral to sign up.

As long as misinformed animal admirers continue to try and obtain exotic pets, poachers will keep kidnapping them from the wild in the name of profit. While this initial study indicates that sellers have not sought out new markets on the dark net quite yet, if law enforcement agents start nabbing more sellers on the surface web, they might just begin to move to Tor sites.