Facebook Groups Drive Illegal Wildlife Trade In Malaysia

A recent report highlights how sellers use the popular social network to peddle threatened species with ease

Sun bear Malaysia

A sun bear seized in a raid against illegal traders in Kuala Lumpur on March 24, 2015. REUTERS

Facebook has become a de facto Silk Road in Malaysia’s bustling illegal wildlife trade, where sellers often deal openly in threatened species, according to a new report by TRAFFIC published on Thursday.

Researchers with the wildlife trade monitoring group checked 14 Facebook groups for 30 minutes per day over five months and found more than 300 wild, live animals for sale, according to the report Trading Faces: A Rapid Assessment on the use of Facebook to Trade Wildlife in Peninsular Malaysia. More than 60 percent of the species being traded were native to Malaysia, while half of the species recorded were protected under the country’s 2010 Wildlife Conservation Act. Species being peddled on the site, mostly through “closed groups” that require membership to access, included vulnerable Sun Bears, gibbons, otters and the threatened Binturong, also known as a bearcat.

Over 80 percent of Malaysia’s Internet users are active on Facebook, according to the report. From November 2014 to March 2015, TRAFFIC counted more than 67,000 active members and 106 active sellers on the social media platform, with one group alone counting over 21,000 members.

“The rise of social media appears to have enabled the creation of a thriving marketplace for wild animals as pets where one previously didn’t exist in Malaysia,” Kanitha Kirshnasamy, TRAFFIC’s program manager in Southeast Asia and co-author of the report, said in a statement.

Wildlife markets are not uncommon in other parts of the region: In Jakarta, for instance, TRAFFIC found over 19,000 birds representing 206 species for sale in the city’s bird markets over a three-day period last September. Additionally, officials in the city said they halted the trade of at least 30 endangered speciesin 2015.

TRAFFIC shared their findings with Facebook and Peninsular Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN). Facebook and TRAFFIC are partnering up to help halt the use of the social media tool as an avenue for the illegal wildlife trade in Malaysia and elsewhere, while PERHILITAN has ramped up efforts to combat the trade on social networks.

“We are committed working with TRAFFIC to help tackle the illegal online trade of wildlife in Malaysia. Facebook does not allow the sale and trade of endangered animals and we will not hesitate to remove any content that violates our Terms of Service,” a Facebook spokesperson told TRAFFIC.

Wildlife Conservation Society President for Species Conservation Dr. Elizabeth Bennett told Vocativ that activists have been concerned about Facebook as a hub for the illegal wildlife trade. When asked if she is concerned about the trade possibly moving to the darker corners of the Internet, Bennett, citing a recent study from the University of Kent that explored the issue, said such activity was negligible compared to the surface web.

“Anything that makes [trading] more difficult and more expensive for people means that it will reduce the scale of it,” she said. “Organized criminal networks are going to find a way to get it no matter what.”

Bennett, who worked in Sarawak, Malaysia, for 18 years, added that while findings such as TRAFFIC’s help the Malaysian government combat the problem of the illegal wildlife trade, the country’s institutions that protect wildlife remain weak.

“Their government capacity is pretty low for handling these issues,” she said. “Part of it is that the laws in the different parts of Malaysia are a bit odd in that wildlife authorities don’t have the authority to enforce the laws. They need to bring the police in.”

While Malaysia represents a meaningful case study for the issue, however, the illegal wildlife trade remains an international problem.

“Social media’s ability to put traffickers in touch with many potential buyers quickly, cheaply and anonymously is of concern for threatened wildlife and enforcement agencies which demands nothing short of a concerted global response,” Sarah Stoner, a senior crime data analyst with TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement.