The internet is famous for bringing people together. But some of those people include poachers and rare animal collectors, fueling a resurgence in the illegal wildlife trade.
The internet's effect on the trade of endangered wildlife was one of the biggest issues discussed at the recent meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, which gathered representatives from 175 countries to discuss conservation issues. A case in point was Kaiser's Spotted Newt, which CITES delegates voted to ban the trade of after the World Wildlife Fund declared internet sellers had "devastated" the species's population.
Seekers of rare animals and plants now have a slightly less shady way to purchase wares once restricted to the darkest corners of the black market. Online, you can buy everything from baby lions to wine made from tiger bones. (And here I am drinking wine made from grapes like a commoner!)
CITES chief law enforcement officer John Sellar is skeptical the internet has really made it safer for illegal wildlife traders to sell, considering how easily purchases can be traced. EBay was once one of the main marketplaces for illegal ivory trading, but a complete ban of the practice in 2008 has sharply decreased such activity on the internet as a whole.
Perhaps the clearest effect the internet has had on wildlife trading is making it easier for existing sellers and buyers to find each other. Ernie Cooper, who has investigated the phenomenon on behalf of TRAFFIC Canada, points to Kaiser's Spotted Newt, which has a total population of about 1000 and has about 200 per year smuggled from its habitat in Iran to be sold as pets, as a perfect example of this phenomenon. He explains:
The Internet itself isn't the threat, but it's another way to market the product. Most people are not willing to pay $300 for a salamander. But through the power of the Internet, tapping into the global market, you can find buyers.