Facebook is once again in the spotlight, this time for the rampant illegal wildlife trade being facilitated through its groups in Thailand.
In a rapid assessment in 2016, carried out for just 30 minutes a day over a total of 23 days, researchers from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, found 1,521 listings of live wild animals for sale on Facebook in Thailand. The animals on offer belonged to at least 200 species. Only about half are protected under the country’s Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act of 1992, or WARPA, the main national law governing the wildlife trade in Thailand. The rest of the species currently remain unprotected by any national law, the report found.
In 2016, TRAFFIC monitored 12 Facebook groups trading in wildlife. When they looked into these groups again in 2018, they found that at least nine of these groups were still active, with one turning into a secret group. In just two years, the membership within these groups had nearly doubled, from 106,111 members in July 2016, to 203,445 members in July 2018.
“I was aware of the trade of wildlife on Facebook in Thailand, but it is always shocking to see how easy it is to offer protected animals for sale, and how easy it is to buy them,” Vincent Nijman, a professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, U.K., who studies the wildlife trade in Southeast Asia, told Mongabay. “The general public often thinks that the illegal wildlife trade takes place in shady places, in hidden alleyways or on the dark web, but in reality much of it takes place in places for all to see.”
The 2016 survey found that birds were the most frequently listed species in the Facebook groups, followed by mammals and reptiles. Of the 1,521 individuals for sale, most were mammals, with more than 500 individuals on offer. Some 139 of these listings were of the Sunda slow loris (Nycticebus coucang), followed by the common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). The international trade in the Sunda slow loris, a primate native to Southeast Asia, is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the species is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
Slow lorises are popular tourist attractions in Thailand and Indonesia as photo props, the authors of the report write, which may be fueling the surge in the trade of this species. These animals are also popular as pets, and have become victims of the illegal pet trade.
“The report of 139 Sunda slow lorises is very worrying — this species only occurs in the southernmost part of Thailand,” said Nijman, who was not part of the TRAFFIC study. “This suggests either high levels of trade in this species in this area or it may be indicative of additional Sunda slow lorises being brought in from Malaysia or Indonesia.”
Among the species listed for sale in the Facebook groups, the TRAFFIC team found two critically endangered ones: a single helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) and 25 individuals of the Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis). Both species are native to Thailand and protected by the country’s laws. A previous survey of the wildlife trade on Facebook by the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand from December 2015 to April 2016 found several helmeted hornbills on sale.
“Given the already critical status this species is at now, any offtake, even in minimal numbers, will have serious implications for its survival,” the report says.
Thailand’s laws do not cover wildlife species effectively. Of the 200-odd species listed for sale in the Facebook groups, 105 are protected by law in Thailand under WARPA, which means their trade is prohibited, while the rest are not protected.
WARPA is also riddled with loopholes, the report says, particularly when it comes to taking action on trade involving non-native species, including those protected under CITES. The black pond turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii), for instance, is a non-native species listed in Appendix I of CITES, making its commercial international trade illegal. But the species keeps turning up in wildlife seizures in Thailand, according to TRAFFIC.
“Growing online wildlife trade will only pile further pressure on threatened non-native species that currently have no legal protection or regulation,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, acting regional director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said in a statement. “Giving such species protection under Thailand’s law and enabling enforcers to take action is the strongest way to address this critical conservation problem.”
Nijman said the Thai government had made progress on tightening the legislation around the trade in elephant ivory and in Asian elephants in recent years. “Now it is time to do the same for other, less charismatic but equally threatened species,” he said.
Besides overhauling existing legislation, Thai authorities must also strengthen their enforcement efforts, TRAFFIC says. For example, the Thai government established the Wild Hawk Unit last year, a specialized task force under the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), authorized to “search, seize and arrest individuals linked to illegal possession and trade of wildlife in Thailand.”
“Any effort to provide law enforcement support should therefore be done in co-ordination with the Wild Hawk Unit,” the report says.
“The way forward for Facebook is to have better monitoring of the illegal online wildlife trade in Thailand and elsewhere, and better and quicker ways for the public to report instances of illegal wildlife trade,” Nijman said. “Closed Facebook pages that sell wildlife need to be better regulated and monitored as well.”
A spokesperson for Facebook told the BBC the company was “committed to working with Traffic and law enforcement authorities to help tackle the illegal online trade of wildlife in Thailand.”
“Facebook does not allow the sale or trade of endangered species or their parts, and we remove this material as soon as we are aware of it,” the spokesperson said.
Facebook, however, is only one of many platforms where wildlife is traded illegally. “It is an important platform, but it is just one of many,” Nijman said. “[To] really tackle the illegal online wildlife trade we need to think bigger and go beyond Facebook.”