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New Study Reveals Illegal Wildlife Trade Now Exists on Darknet

  • Monday, June 19, 2017
  • Nairobi

New research by INTERPOL has found limited, but clear evidence of criminals using the Darknet to sell illicit wildlife products from critically endangered species such as rhino horn, elephant ivory and tiger parts and products. According to INTERPOL, some wildlife traders are trying to use the Darknet as a medium for conducting their business. 

Darknet is a computer network with restricted access that is used chiefly for illegal peer-to-peer file sharing. However, the traders’ attempts are sometimes strongly disapproved or condemned.

Researchers from INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation noted that the majority of trading was in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

The research report  'Illegal Wildlife Trade in the Darknet,' was funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the US Department of State and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). Conducted between December 2016 and April 2017, the research found 21 advertisements, some dating back to 2015, offering rhino horn products, ivory, and tiger parts.

According to AWF Vice-President for Species Conservation, criminal networks are adapting new ways to traffic wildlife illegally, and law enforcement must stay ahead of their game and collaborate at greater scale.

“Ultimately our efforts will succeed if wildlife species affected by this illicit trade continue to thrive in their natural habitats,” said Muruthi. 

During the research, it was noted, only two transactions were publicly recorded as finalized on a Darknet marketplace. The trade of rhinoceros, elephants, and tigers, and their parts, over the Darknet is a small field compared to other products and services such as drugs, carding, digital items, malware, forged documents, child-abuse material, and others. Wildlife items are often included in the “Other Listings” category.

“Criminals will always seek to identify new areas to make a profit from their illicit activities, and the Darknet is no exception,” said David Higgins, Manager of INTERPOL’s Environmental Security programme.

“We need to ensure that law enforcement in member countries has the support and resources they need to tackle wildlife crime in both physical and virtual marketplaces to help protect our wildlife and our shared global biodiversity.”

According to the researchers, wildlife traders are likely to be attracted to the Darknet because of its high anonymity and security mechanisms, with sellers already familiar with the encryption technology, financial instruments and communication methods commonly used in this anonymous space.

“We simply can’t ignore the opportunities the Darknet offers to criminals wanting to peddle wildlife in secret,” said Tania McCrea-Steele, IFAW Global Wildlife Cybercrime Project Lead.

As much as 96 percent of the Internet is not indexed by standard search engines, making the Deepweb of which the Darknet is a part of, about 500 times the size of the World Wide Web. It is typically used to promote illegal services or crime areas such as drug trafficking, financial crime, cybercrime and online child sexual exploitation.

The growth in e-commerce and the potential interest in this crime area demonstrate the need for law enforcement officials to analyze the Darknet when investigating wildlife criminals.

The research focused specifically on rhinoceros, elephants, and tigers, which are all endangered species with any international trade in their parts or products strictly forbidden. In South Africa - which has the largest population of white and black rhinos worldwide - the number of rhinos poached for their horns increased more than 90-fold between 2007 and 2015, with 1,054 killed in 2016 alone.

In 2016, more than 20 tons of poached elephant ivory, prized as ‘white gold’ in parts of Asia and China, as well as the United States, was seized by law enforcement globally. 

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