Combating wildlife cyber crime

Combating wildlife cyber crime

India addresses illicit internet trade

The website advertised dhaariwala chaddar, which is Hindi for “striped bedsheet.” It is also code for tiger skin, the sale of which is illegal under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty signed by 183 countries that protects 5,000 species of animals and 29,000 species of plants. In foreign markets, a tiger rug can sell for more than U.S. $160,000, and investigators have seen a stuffed tiger priced at U.S. $728,000.

Although the internet has facilitated trade in rare and endangered species for decades and contributed to the decline of many species worldwide, such trafficking has become more prevalent in recent years in India, a country rich with diverse and extraordinary creatures.

Poaching and wildlife crimes increased 92 percent in India, from 15,800 to 30,382 between 2014 and 2016, according to a book by New Delhi’s nonprofit Centre for Science and Environment titled State of India’s Environment 2017. The number of species poached or illegally traded also increased from 400 in 2014 to 465 in 2016, data from the Wildlife Protection Society of India revealed.

Kaziranga National Park rangers find a tiger carcass in floodwater at the Bagori range in August 2017. [THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

India’s national animal, the tiger, has declined from 100,000 a century ago to about 2,226 at present, according to India’s Environmental Ministry. India harbors about 60 percent of the world’s tigers, with the other remaining 1,400 distributed across 12 countries, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates.

Poachers killed at least 15 of the 74 tigers that died in India between January and July of 2017, government officials said. Six died of natural causes, and 53 deaths are pending investigation. Twenty-one of the 122 tigers that died in 2016 were poached. Poachers also did not spare the peacock, India’s national bird. They killed 340 peacocks between 2015 and 2016, a tally that nearly doubled that of 2014.

Internet traffickers have also targeted India’s one-horned rhinos. A rhino horn commands
1 million rupees (U.S. $15,625) in local markets and more than twice that when sold as an aphrodisiac in the Chinese or Vietnamese markets. More than 260 rhinos have fallen to poachers in the state of Assam since 2001, according to government figures. Seventeen more perished in the heavy rains in 2016, and the two waves of flood this season have claimed the lives of 28 more. Poachers are aware they can acquire the horn without having to kill the animal. A rhino’s horn does not grow out of its skull. It is composed of keratin, a protein found in hair, fingernails and animal hooves, and can be excised without killing the animal.

Eluding enforcement

The internet has streamlined illegal cross-border wildlife trade, making detection of traffickers more difficult. These traders face minimal risk of being exposed or tracked because they do not need bricks-and-mortar showrooms or conventional means to peddle their wares, experts explain. They now make deals online from remote locations, removed from law enforcement scrutiny. Prospective clients place orders, usually in code, paying online for what often appears to be legitimate products, skirting discovery.

Moreover, many of these criminal organizations are politically connected and well-funded. India’s Supreme Court, the country’s highest court, observed in a 2010 ruling against a trafficker that many animals are being driven to the brink of extinction by “ruthless sophisticated operators, some of whom have top-level patronage.”

“The actual poachers are paid only a pittance, while huge profits are made by the leaders of the organized gangs who have international connections in foreign countries. Poaching of wildlife is an organized international illegal activity which generates massive amount of money for the criminals,” the judgment said.

Online tracking

India has increased its efforts to thwart such cyber traffickers. In 2016, Indian Environmental Minister Anil Madhav Dave released a list of websites, including Amazon India, Snapdeal, OLX India, eBay India, Alibaba India and Quikr, that were selling rare animals and their parts. India’s Department of Information Technology was monitoring the online activity as part of its efforts to combat cyber crime at the central and state government levels.

The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), based in New Delhi, compiled a list of more than 100 websites. A 2007 statute established WCCB under the Ministry of Environment and Forests to combat organized wildlife crime in India. One section of the Wildlife (Protection) Act calls for the collection, collation and dissemination of intelligence on organized wildlife crime activities to enforcement agencies for immediate action to apprehend such criminals.

Criminals market monitor lizards and their parts, which are advertised on the internet as aphrodisiacs. [THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

Indian authorities recently tracked down clandestine online trade in the dried penises of monitor lizards that were being sold as hatha Jodi, which means “folded hands” in Hindi, a rare plant root used as a talisman in tantric, or occult, rituals. The e-commerce sites of Amazon, Snapdeal, eBay and Alibaba on which this item was sold had not ascertained the origin of the products.

“We hope to rid the internet of such items so that people are not getting fooled by criminals and buying wildlife trade products unbeknownst to them,” said Jose Louies, who heads the enforcement assistance and law division of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and who helped uncover this trade.

Trade in monitor lizards is illegal under the Wildlife Act and also is cruel. Trappers immobilize an animal by tying its legs together after pulling out its claws. They then burn the reptile’s groin while it is still alive to make the penis protrude enough to excise it with a knife. The animal dies an excruciating death, Louies said.

WTI and WCCB have launched an online campaign to stop the use of animal products in such occult practices in India along with other initiatives to combat cyber trafficking of wildlife in general, Louies said.

“The bureau is regularly monitoring the websites for any such advertisements or offers for immediate action in the matter,” said WCCB Additional Director Tilotama Varma. “Considering the seriousness of the issue, the bureau has also taken several initiatives, such as contracting a cyber crime specialist to carry out regular cyber patrolling to detect any posts or offers over such trade portals on the World Wide Web, apart from retrieving details of suspects and passing them on to relevant enforcement agencies for legal action.”

Moreover, “if the investigations or criminal analyses by the WCCB or any other agency determine the involvement of any foreign nationals, the details of such culprits are sought from the respective countries through the National Central Bureau [Interpol],” she said.

WCCB convened a meeting of representatives from online trade portals in May 2016 to alert them to internet trafficking and to discuss how they could assist the bureau, Varma said. Many of the websites, she noted, are hosted from overseas, and the businesses are difficult to locate.

Targeting marketers

Worldwide demand for animal and plant products continues to drive wildlife trafficking in India, with the U.S. and China topping the list of markets. Traffickers are emboldened, some experts say, because the U.S. is the largest consumer of legally traded plant and animal products regulated by CITES. The U.S. Congress passed the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act in September 2016, providing the country with “additional tools to combat wildlife trafficking and to foster international action to end this threat to our natural heritage.”

China, too, is a major consumer of legal and illegal wildlife products. Traditional Chinese medicine is based largely on natural flora and fauna. Consumption in China is also driven by age-old beliefs in the aphrodisiacal powers of various animal products such as tiger penises and rhino horns, many of which are unfounded.

While China is the main market for ivory, Vietnam is the top market for rhino horn, says Dr. Richard Thomas of Cambridge-based TRAFFIC, the joint wildlife trade monitoring network of the WWF and International Union for Conservation of Nature. China has pledged, however, to end ivory trade by the end of 2017, a move that has sent prices plummeting globally and that raises hopes for elephant conservation. The Chinese market has been a major driver of elephant poaching in Africa, where 30,000 elephants are slain each year.

International trade in ivory has been banned since 1990, but many countries, including the U.S. and China, have continued to allow its domestic sale. However, Washington passed regulations in June 2016 banning such trade, though exempting ivory antiques and some other categories.

Apart from ivory, other wildlife products continue to be routed to China through India, Nepal, Burma and Bangladesh, among others.

E-tailers such as Amazon, eBay, OLX and Snapdeal say they have terminated such sales. Amazon India says it took down 296 items in the “animal specimen” category in May 2017 and 104 items under the “snares or traps” category listed by third-party sellers. “Such products are no longer available on Amazon. In addition, we have strictly enforced any attempts to inadvertently sell them,” a spokesperson said. EBay states that it has zero tolerance for any wrongdoings and has outlined policies against such sales on its site. OLX reports it is taking steps to ensure that protected animals and birds are not listed for sale by any of its users.

India’s Madhya Pradesh Tiger Strike Force, which was set up in 2008 by the state forest department as a check on wildlife poaching, recently served notices on e-commerce companies Snapdeal, IndiaMart, Wish and Buy, and Craft Comparison for listing wildlife products on their portals. These firms had been linked to the online sale and seizure of animal products related to the work by India’s Wildlife Trust and Louies. Indian authorities directed the companies to remove all such content from their sites and demonstrate why they should not be acted against. The confiscated items included hatha jodi as well as siyar singhi – clumps of hair that grow on a jackal’s head – that is used in a similar fashion in tantric rituals and believed to possess magical properties that will bring wealth and help resolve problems.

Some online companies have been working to curb internet marketing of illegal items. In 2009, eBay forbade the sale of ivory across all its platforms. Chinese online marketplaces Alibaba and Tabao banned postings of wildlife sales in 2009 and 2008, respectively, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development task force on countering illicit trade report. Another e-commerce firm, Etsy, banned such sales in 2013, and Chinese tech giant Tencent, which owns WeChat and the QQ instant messenger, in 2015 launched a campaign, “Tencent for the Planet – Say ‘No’ to Illegal Wildlife Trade.”

WCCB Joint Director Kamal Datta said the bureau has supplied the trade portals with code words and filters and has asked them to report suspicious activity. The WCCB also conducts training for its staff to keep them abreast of such trends and to take action. It also facilitates capacity-building programs for forest and police officials, organizes interagency meetings and sponsors awareness sessions for people living near wildlife reserves.

“We are constructively coordinating with all concerned agencies like the forest protection force, the police, Customs, Central Bureau of Investigation, Intelligence Bureau, Reserve Police Force and SSB [Sashastra Seema Bal, Hindi for Armed Border Force] for effective enforcement,” Varma said. “The bureau also coordinates with the Indian Navy and Coast Guard in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, and the Gulf of Mannar and the Lakshadweep Islands in the Lakshadweep Sea [an expanse of the sea bordering India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean] for effective action against illegal poaching of marine species.”

Successful arrests

The WCCB, working with its various components and counterparts, continues to rack up successes. Between 2013 and 2016, WCCB tracked 725 smuggling cases and arrested 275 perpetrators, Varma said.

WCCB has arrested at least 129 people involved in poaching of the pangolins and trading of their scales, sought for their medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities, since March 2015 when the Madhya Pradesh forest department created a special task force to tackle the issue. Demand from China for the endangered mammals is driving the illicit trade and has led poachers to establish three main smuggling routes from central India to China, the Hindustan Times newspaper reported in February 2017. The first moves goods through Nepal and Tibet, the second through Burma to Laos and Thailand, and a third through Uttarakhand to Tibet. Illegal drugs often accompany shipments, one informant said.

Indian officials seized roughly 5,900 kilograms of scales between 2009 and 2014, which means about 2,000 pangolins were killed during that time, according to the Hindustan Times. In China, the scales sell for U.S. $2,500 a kilogram.

“Our research shows while the number of seizures is increasing, the volume of seized scales is declining. This is a clear indication that the population of pangolins is decreasing in India,” pangolin expert Rajesh Kumar Mohapatra told the Hindustan Times. Mohapatra is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Pangolin Specialist Group.

Similarly, in the largest turtle interdiction in the country so far, a special task force run by the Uttar Pradesh police seized 6,430 endangered soft shell and flap shell turtles from a house in Amethi district in January 2017, the Times of India newspaper reported. As many as 37,267 turtles were rescued in India between 2015 and 2016, or about 100 turtles every day of that year, the Centre for Science and Environment reported.

Today, most species in India are threatened by poaching, shrinking habitats, haphazard development and by hunters looking for game. Despite the enforcement successes, much work remains. Wildlife trafficking, deforestation and loss of habitat are no longer localized problems but global ones. Sharing information internally and regionally is key for strengthening enforcement networks and increasing understanding and commitments to counter cyber criminals who engage in illegal trade in animals, plants and wildlife, trafficking enforcement experts advise. Many Indian officials point out that the foreign demand drives poaching and the often-needless slaughter of endangered animals. To curb cyber trafficking, factors driving demand must also be addressed, they say.