Vast quantities of wildlife products and live animals are being traded illegally on the internet, according to the results of an investigation out today.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said the soaring and lucrative trade was driving the world’s most endangered species to the brink of extinction and causing untold suffering.
Every day thousands of wild animals and animal parts, from live chimpanzees and huge ivory tusks to tiny dried seahorses, are being traded in cyberspace.
IFAW said its three-month inquiry showed how in just one week more than 9,000 live animals or products were for sale online in chatrooms and on legitimate trading sites such as eBay. At least 70% of these were from species protected by international law.
The investigation was restricted to five categories of animals, so the findings represent the tip of the iceberg.
IFAW said its report “Caught in the web, wildlife trade on the internet” will add to conservationists’ fears that the growing and largely unchecked internet trade could spell disaster for endangered species.
Many of these animals are being targeted by poachers to meet the demands of wealthy consumers around the world, as well as being traded as “pets”.
The high profits and low penalties of illegal wildlife trade, coupled with the low risk of detection on the internet, provides little or no deterrent to organised criminal groups.
IFAW found some of the world’s most endangered species advertised online and almost all of them were being traded illegally.
Exotic pets including a live gorilla for sale in London, a Siberian tiger and four baby chimps on US websites were found, as well as other critically-endangered species.
Animal body parts included hawksbill turtle shells, shahtoosh shawls from the Tibetan antelope and taxidermy specimens of lions and peregrine falcons – a protected British species.
Ivory items and traditional Asian medicines containing the parts of endangered tigers and rhinos were also common.
Phyllis Campbell-McRae, director of IFAW UK, said: “Trade on the internet is easy, cheap and anonymous.
“However, it is clear that unscrupulous traders and sophisticated criminal gangs are taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the world wide web.
“The result is a cyber black market where the future of the world’s rarest animals is being traded away.
“This situation must be tackled immediately by governments and website owners before it is too late.
“Each one of us also has a responsibility to stop buying and selling wild animals and wildlife products. Trade in wildlife is driven by consumer demand, so when the buying stops the killing will too.
“Our message to online shoppers is simple – buying wildlife online is as damaging as killing it yourself.”
Professor William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, said: “The internet is a two-edged sword.
“It can be used by some to support the trading of wildlife, but others can use this new medium to expose and challenge it.
“Laws exist to stop the unlawful use of any communication medium, but governments and agencies need to communicate in order to address the activities that span the globe.”
Investigators found a lack of adequate and straightforward information about wildlife trade and the law.
IFAW has launched its own website to provide the public with clear guidelines - www.caughtintheweb.co.uk.
An online auction of framed wildlife prints signed by celebrated conservationists and TV wildlife presenters starts on eBay today, as a symbolic alternative to buying real endangered species on the internet.
Chimp expert Jane Goodall, elephant orphanage founder Daphne Sheldrick and TV vet Steve Leonard are among those who have signed photos and have joined IFAW in urging the public to buy images, not real animals online.