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CBI officials with elephant tusks seized in 2012 (Photo: HT)
CBI officials with elephant tusks seized in 2012 (Photo: HT)

Wildlife cyber sleuths to the rescue

  • Indian wildlife conservationists and sleuths are coming together to tackle illegal wildlife trade in the cyberspace
  • According to experts, the situation is grim, with wildlife trade online emerging as a transnational organized crime that threatens the existence of many species

As we speak, we have an operation under way in a major metro regarding softshell turtles which were being sold on the internet by a pet shop. It is illegal to trade in these species in India," says Jose Louies, as we settle down for a conversation. As deputy director and chief, wildlife crime control division, at the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI)—a conservation organization—Louies keeps a hawk’s eye on illegal wildlife sales. In the past couple of years, he has had to turn his attention to cyberspace as well, owing to a mushrooming online trade facilitated by chat groups and social media sites.

According to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, the situation is grim, with wildlife trade online emerging as a transnational organized crime that threatens the existence of many wild species. In India, it includes diverse products, including mongoose hair, snakeskin, rhino horn, tiger and leopard claws, bones, skins, elephant tusks, deer antlers, turtle shells, musk pods and bear bile. “The online world gives a shield of anonymity to the illegal traders against legal actions. The big-time traders almost never come online. Their middlemen do," says Shekhar Kumar Niraj, additional principal chief conservator of forests and director, Advanced Institute for Wildlife Conservation, Chennai.

Mongoose hair and pangolin scales are some of the products traded illegally online.
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Mongoose hair and pangolin scales are some of the products traded illegally online. (Photo: iStock)

Efforts to combat the murky business of illegal online wildlife trade are now being undertaken by the Union government, assisted by non-governmental organizations such as TRAFFIC India, Wildlife SOS and WTI. “In recent times, as the world has gone more digital, we have seen a rise in the number of cases that have been detected, tracked and solved using digital technology. In the last couple of years, we have seized musk deer pods, which are extremely expensive, turtles in Chennai and pangolin scales in Andhra Pradesh. While investigating online trade, we came across a carved elephant ivory tusk that was being offered for an astronomical price in Mumbai. That too was successfully solved," says Niraj.

The first time that this sort of cyberspace crime came to notice was in the Jeevan Kumar case. In August 2008, Louies and his team handed over months of online research about two brothers, Jeevan and Ashish Thakur, to the Uttar Pradesh special task force. Louies and his team set up fake online profiles and email addresses to lure the brothers into selling a rare albino civet cat. Both were arrested. “This case was extremely significant as it was the first complete case to be detected and completed online," says Louies.

Today, the illegal online trade essentially focuses on “pet" animals—turtles, reptiles, birds—which might be protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). “Today, traders are focusing on specific species and subspecies. They share this information on chat groups with potential buyers and then negotiate on the price. None of this is happening within a public domain but via the underground web," elaborates Louies, who believes digital technology enables buyers and traders across the world to connect. The use of mobile wallets makes it difficult for wildlife sleuths to track people. Money goes from one wallet to another, and then gets parked in an account which can’t be linked to the main trader.

This online trade is leading to an increase in the influx of exotic animals and the setting up of private zoos
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This online trade is leading to an increase in the influx of exotic animals and the setting up of private zoos

The traders are tech-savvy. “The groups on which trade and discussions are happening require multiple levels of verification. In order to get membership, one person has to make the introductions, while another has to vouch for your credentials," he explains.

The social media profiles of members are checked and background information is verified to ensure they are not decoys. “They know the scientific names of all species, and whether they are restricted under CITES or not. Their legal knowledge is impeccable, and the established ones often enlist the help of lawyer friends," says Louies.

This online trade is leading to an increase in the influx of exotic animals and the setting up of private zoos—which can pose their own dangers.

For, as the US-based National Wildlife Federation states: “When a new and aggressive species is introduced into an ecosystem... native wildlife may not have evolved defenses against the invader, or they may not be able to compete with a species that has no predators.

“Pit vipers are coming in from Africa. At Trichy airport last year, a consignment of wild animals was found after being tracked online. And we found a spitting cobra in it. I don’t know who would want a spitting cobra as a pet, but these invasive exotics will pose deep problems for the future," he rues.

A stakeholders’ meeting was jointly organized in the Capital earlier this month by TRAFFIC, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), along with the US Embassy. It was attended by members of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), International Fund for Animal Welfare, WTI and representatives of IT companies such as Google, Flipkart and IndiaMART. “Right now if any case of illegal wildlife trade is noticed, it is brought to the attention of enforcement agencies. We now wish to engage with responsible IT companies so that a collaborative approach can be developed to keep the internet free from illegal wildlife trade," says Saket Badola, head, TRAFFIC India. These stakeholders will now be working to develop a platform for joint action.

“One very apt phrase was used in the session: ‘We only know the shadow of the tip of the iceberg.’ People are using covert keywords and other kinds of concealments. There are self-encrypted messages that disappear in 20 seconds. It is a task to monitor hundreds of groups and chat rooms. But it will have to be done," says Louies.

Besides stakeholders’ meetings, TRAFFIC India and WWF have also tied up with the NTCA for a cyber-surveillance pilot project, Cyber Claw, in six tiger reserves.“We have completed training in four tiger reserves. As part of the second phase, we will choose officials from each tiger reserve who will then take on the role of trainers. This is the need of the hour," explains Badola.

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