Saving wildlife from trafficking on the new conservation frontier — the internet

By Crawford Allan (Senior Director, TRAFFIC at WWF US)

The current pandemic has brought into sharp view the difficult relationship between humans and wildlife, and the role that the trade in wildlife plays in the spread of zoonotic diseases. A major exacerbating factor that increases the risk of such spillover is the illegal and unregulated trade in wildlife, which has caused devastation to wildlife in recent decades to meet a surging demand for the rare and exotic as food, pets and medicine. The role of the internet in exponentially facilitating this trade and turning local markets into global ones online, has skyrocketed the scale of the illicit wildlife trade and encouraged greater consumer demand. Even the largest online platforms have been used by criminal groups to traffic wildlife globally, often to consumers who don’t realize the species, or their products, are illegal, facing risk of extinction in the wild or are high-risk for disease transmission. With trillions of items for sale daily, it is impossible for law enforcement to police the internet effectively for the range of illicit goods that are openly available.

After years of watching this challenge unfold in my role of catalyzing partnerships to tackle illegal wildlife trade, I recognized that the main way of addressing online trade challenges was by the companies themselves from the inside. I conceived the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online as a way of bringing the leading tech companies together to take a private sector cooperative approach to improving governance and enforcement of this major marketplace. And it worked. After launching in 2018, today there are 36 companies that are members of the Coalition who have in that period removed 3.2 million listings for prohibited wildlife like live tiger cubs, rhinoceros horn medicine, elephant ivory and pangolin scales. Among the companies taking action to support rule of law, wildlife conservation and safe consumer behaviors, are Alibaba, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Tencent, and together the Coalition covers a wide swath of the internet globally.

This Coalition is not about certifying companies for their efforts to give them a promotional advantage, and it is not all-encompassing of public, private, and civil society sectors. The Coalition’s purpose is to find ways that companies can work together to get results by applying strong user policies, detecting and preventing prohibited content, refining algorithms and generating user awareness. The focus is on solutions, shared learning and practices in a safe, non competitive environment, that streamlines efforts based on the science and information provided to them by the coordinating conservation groups that created the Coalition: WWF, IFAW and TRAFFIC. I am proud of the efforts of this partnership and the companies we work with, and we share a vision and passion to prevent the illegal wildlife trade online from exploding and causing greater devastation to wildlife populations. Of critical importance, this collaboration also aims to tackle the growing threats of zoonotic disease transmission caused by wildlife trade that has impacted all of us.

We are realizing that humanity’s existence is dependent on a healthy planet. Ensuring a strong, healthy, and wealthy future for homo sapiens is closely tied with ensuring a strong and healthy future for the other species and their habitats that struggle to co-exist with us. Poaching and smuggling these wild, precious jewels and bringing them into thronging urban centers under duress in proximity with other wildlife, domestic animals and people has already had cataclysmic impacts for people and nature. As the world faces the potential of future pandemics caused by wildlife trafficking, the foundational work of the Coalition will help to reduce threats from the growing demand for high-risk species facilitated by technology and use of online platforms. Saving wildlife will help save people too.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

Crawford leads wildlife conservation programs nationally and internationally related to trade, trafficking and sustainability, with 30 years’ experience. Crawford served on the Federal Advisory Council to the U.S. Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, 2013–2017. He has led numerous large-scale projects combating wildlife trafficking and co-created / oversaw USAID Wildlife TRAPS and the ROUTES Partnership totaling $20 million. He was also creator and leader of phase 1 of WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology project — the recipient of a $5 million Google Global Impact Award Grant to develop and pilot tech innovations in the field. He is the founder of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online with nearly 40 of the world’s largest tech companies and other partners. His mission has evolved to help build partnerships to reduce future pandemic risks emerging because of wildlife trade.

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