Facebook groups in Malaysia have become a hub for the burgeoning online trade in exotic - and often protected - animals, says a new report. Elsewhere, Instagram and WhatsApp are also implicated.
Nearly 70,000 Facebook users worldwide are members of Facebook groups in Malaysia that are driving the illegal trade of wildlife, according to a report just released by the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC.
Over a five-month period, TRAFFIC witnessed 380 animals and 80 different species sold or captured across 14 Facebook groups based in Malaysia.
The trade involved birds (44 percent), reptiles (34 percent) and mammals (22 percent), the latter including sun bears, gibbons or binturongs (also known as bearcats).
The majority of the species (60 percent) are native to Malaysia; half are protected from hunting or trade under national laws. Their trade, whether online or offline, is illegal.
Of the non-native species available, one-third are protected under the international CITES treaty, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
A Facebook spokesperson told TRAFFIC that "We are committed to working with TRAFFIC to help tackle the illegal online trade of wildlife in Malaysia. Facebook does not allow the sale and trade of endangered animals and we will not hesitate to remove any content that violates our Terms of Service."
The trafficking of wild animals via social media is also occurring beyond Malaysia's borders.
"Although the findings are about illegal wildlife trade in Malaysia, we believe it reflects a worldwide problem," said Sarah Stoner, a Senior Crime Data Analyst with TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia and the co-author of the report Trading Faces: A Rapid Assessment on the use of Facebook to Trade Wildlife in Peninsular Malaysia.
In a separate investigation in December, the wildlife awareness organization Mongabay published a report on Instagram's role in illegal ape deals - particularly as they related to purchases in the Middle East.
One Dubai-based Instagram business, for example, regularly posted pictures of exotic animals, in one case a baby gorilla with a teaser reading "coming soon." Interested buyers, most of them in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), would then be given a WhatsApp number to conduct future correspondence.
Who's buying? One Instagram user calling himself Humaid al Buqaish regularly posts photos and videos showing animals such as chimpanzees, a baby orangutan, an adult and baby cheetah as well as lions. A video post from March 2 shows him feeding watermelon to a slow loris in a cafe/restaurant setting. Slow lorises cannot be traded comercially under the CITES treaty.
Al Buqaish has nearly one million Instagram followers. His listed telephone number is from the United Arab Emirates.
The issue is more complex in the US. One US-based Facebook page DW examined had a March 1 post offering baby servals, a predatory cat native to sub-Saharan African.
Two Facebook users, both based in the US, responded to the post by writing "email sent."
Trade in servals is not restricted under the CITES treaty. Such Facebook pages, and the businesses behind them, are legal.
That said, US buyers face the same restrictions, for example, as pet owners in Germany: State laws, or even county or municipal laws, dictate whether one can raise these animals in a domestic setting. There is no federal law prohibiting their sale.
A disclaimer on the business' website simply states, "Do consider that certain types of exotic animals do require a USDA permit or other state or federal permits" and encourages potential buyers to look into whether a nearby veterinarian would be capable of assisting such an animal.
In other words, the seller considers it the buyer's responsibility to adhere to local law.
What to do
If social media users anywhere see anything suspicious, they should contact local authorities immediately.
In Malaysia, TRAFFIC shared its findings with the country's wildlife department (PERHILITAN), which has since conducted successful operations against wildlife traders operating on Facebook.
"We recognize the scale of this problem as we have been monitoring over 30 Facebook Groups selling wildlife since 2013," said PERHILITAN's director of enforcement, Hasnan Yusop. "PERHILITAN has taken measures to address the problem, including working with other law enforcement agencies to stop the illegal trade of wildlife on Facebook.
"We have carried out 43 successful seizures, arrested at least 54 illegal traders and saved over 67 wildlife species from being traded illegally on Facebook."