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At the Tap Of A Key

At the Tap Of A Key

The Internet, a bottomless pit, is one of the world’s largest marketplaces for the global, illegal wildlife trade, cautions one of India’s finest police officers, B.K. Sharma.

An exhaustive six-week investigation conducted by IFAW in 2014 revealed over 33,000 endangered wildlife and wildlife products being offered for sale in 280 online sites across 16 countries. Photo: Aniruddha Mookerjee/WTI.

Over the last decade, the Internet has emerged as the world’s largest marketplace. Unregulated in operation, anonymous in transaction and endless in opportunity, it has redefined the contours of criminal activity, including a flourishing illegal trade in protected wildlife species and their derivatives. Camouflaged as historical artefacts or family heritage goods, offer of trade often thrives on dubious documentation. While such an ever-expanding illegal trade has a devastating effect on our fragile ecosystems, contemporary national and international laws are unable to counter it and a new challenge to enforcement is unfolding every day.

International Dimensions

The extent and dimension of the illegal wildlife trade through the Internet is difficult to assess. Some sceptics have argued that the “impact of the web has been overblown.” However, a series of empirical studies have revealed that the trade encompasses a variety of species and is expanding. A groundbreaking investigation was undertaken by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2008, which published a report titled Killing with Keystrokes: An Investigation of the Illegal Wildlife Trade, on the World Wide Web. During a six-week ‘snapshot’ investigation, IFAW tracked over 7,000 online listings of wildlife and wildlife products for sale in 11 countries. The results showed a high volume of wildlife trade with thousands of CITES-listed specimens being offered for sale every week. While the United States accounted for 70 per cent of the total trade, China and the United Kingdom were responsible for nearly eight per cent each. Elephant products and live exotic birds accounted for 93 per cent of the offer for sale. IFAW calculated that the total value of the trade during six weeks of its investigation, conservatively estimated, amounted to USD half a million in final sales.

In 2011, another IFAW study which tracked websites offering wildlife products in five European countries revealed a thriving trade in ivory items, most of it based on dubious documents. In January 2012, IFAW detected listings of nearly 18,000 ivory products on 13 Chinese websites. During the same year, a four-week investigation in the United Arab Emirates and neighbouring Arab countries showed nearly 800 advertisements for sale featuring live wildlife.

In early 2013, Interpol launched ‘Project Web’ to analyse the scale and nature of illegal trade in ivory on the Internet. Over a period of two weeks, 10 participating countries from the European Union (EU) conducted  diligent surveillance of their national auction sites to identify advertisements for ivory items. A total of 702 advertisements on 83 auction sites were located, offering approximately 4,500 kg. of ivory. The project identified that ivory was predominantly traded through European countries and its destination was Asia. Project Web concluded that the Internet is being “increasingly used as a platform for illegal trade in ivory.”

In 2014, IFAW conducted four separate investigations into online wildlife trade. An exhaustive six-week investigation revealed over 33,000 endangered wildlife and wildlife products being offered for sale in 280 online sites across 16 countries. The study published as Wanted – Dead or Alive, Exposing Online Wildlife Trade revealed that the value of the items investigated was approximately USD 11 million. Two separate studies in 2014 in Australia and New Zealand revealed availability of wide varieties of wildlife species in some of their most popular trading sites. All the studies convincingly demonstrate that the trade is booming, involving billions of dollars and mostly based on unreliable documentation or no documentation at all. The Internet, undoubtedly, is facilitating a marketplace in which the pool of potential buyers is far larger than the conventional hunter/buyer relationship.

Greater accessibility and usage of the Internet in India have resulted in wildlife products springing up for sale on online market places like OLX.in, Quikr.com, Alibaba.com and IndiaMart.com. Photo: Image for Representational Purposes Only.

The Indian scenario

With greater Internet accessibility and usage, Indian wildlife criminals do not seem to be lagging behind in using the platform to their advantage. Online market places like OLX.in, Quikr.com and IndiaMart.com often carry advertisements for sale of wildlife products.

In January 2009, officials of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), Mumbai Region, arrested two individuals offering to sell a Black-winged Kite on OLX.in. The arrest led to the capture of a notorious dealer of birds in Crawford Market in Mumbai. In August 2013, tracking some advertisements on OLX.in, officials of WCCB, Kolkata Region, apprehended an Advocate of the Kolkata High Court, who was offering to sell a tiger tooth on behalf of another person, claiming it to be a family heirloom. Officials of the Regional Office of WCCB, Guwahati, detected an offer to sell a tokay gecko at an astronomical price of Rs. 20 crore in July 2014. The case was handed over to the Cyber Crime Cell of Assam CB-CID, which traced three persons by identifying the IP addresses, including one known as Bijoy Das, who is the mastermind of the illegal trade and is on the run.

In July 2014, the Mumbai Regional Office of WCCB found a Facebook post offering to sell various wild animals. A chat was initiated and through a decoy customer, two persons were apprehended from Kandivali from whom two baby mugger crocodiles, 25 tent turtles, 10 star tortoises and 15 red-eared slider turtles were recovered.

During the current year, TRAFFIC-India has been able to detect four cases (two related to sand boas and two to tiger nails) and apprehend 11 offenders involved in online wildlife crime.

Modus Operandi

Live wildlife and products are generally sold on auction sites such as e-Bay, Alibaba and Gumtree. In 2009, e-Bay banned the sale of wildlife products including ivory. In 2014, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between TRAFFIC and the Alibaba Group, pledging zero tolerance in the listing and sale of wildlife products online. Despite these efforts, their illegal sale continues unabated. Trade also takes place through specialist sites. While many sites are completely anonymous or use pseudonyms, in other cases privacy laws of the country protect the user from interception of communication except through elaborate and time-consuming legal procedures. Sellers furnish fake names and addresses. They change e-mail accounts frequently and even use ‘cold servers’. Communication which begins in open fora, often shifts to private discussions through untraceable e-mail, discussion boards and chat rooms where the real deal is struck.

An interesting feature of the trade is the extensive use of code words for species. ‘Double engine’ or ‘scooter’ stands for a sand boa snake, ‘four-wheeler’ means a tortoise, while ‘pipe’ is the code for ivory. ‘Aloo’ or potato signifies musk, while ‘pyaaz’ or onion is the code word for bear bile. Shirt or ‘chaddar’ are the commonly-used code names for animal skins, ‘dhariwala chaddar’ represents tiger skin while ‘chotadhariwala chaddar’ means leopard skin.

Yet another way to avoid detection and get around the ban imposed by auction sites is the use of false descriptions or euphemisms. e-Bay installed filters to catch words like ‘ivory’. Illegal wildlife traders immediately changed the nomenclature of the items. First, they called ivory ‘fauxivory’. When filters caught that ruse, wildlife traders changed the name to ‘ox bone’. Each time an auction site programmes an alias into its filter to detect offering of banned items, another one emerges. Once the buyer knows the terminology and understands how to search, he can locate the desired wildlife article, notwithstanding the much-publicised ban by various auction sites.

Odisha’s Wildlife Crime Cell

The Forest and Environment Department of the Odisha Government passed an order on October 16, 2015, to constitute a ‘Wildlife Crime Cell’, which will function in the office of the Additional Director General of Police, Criminal Investigation Department, Crime Branch, and comprise a dedicated team of four to six officers to take up investigation and file complaints under Notification under Section 55 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The cell shall have state-wide jurisdiction and be empowered to perform the following functions:

1. Collect and collate intelligence related to wildlife crime activities and to disseminate the same to field units for enforcement action.

2. Establish a wildlife crime data bank.

3. Prevent, investigate and prosecute organised wildlife crime case having wider ramifications.

4. Act as a nodal point for Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of lndia, on wildlife crime-related issues.

5. Co-ordinate inter-agency wildlife crime enforcemnet action in the state.

6. Advise the state government on issues relating to wildlife crime and related laws.

The Way Forward

When Maharashtra established its first Wildlife Crime Cell at Melghat in 2014, it ushered in a quantum leap in enforcement capabilities. The Cell was unique because it focused on online tracking cases of wildlife poaching. Analysing Call Detail Records (CDRs) and correlating with on-ground investigations, the Cell soon tracked a group of 34 offenders, involved in a single case of tiger poaching. Buoyant with the success, the Maharashtra Government has now authorised five tiger reserves in the state to operate exclusive Cyber Crime Cells with the mandate of undertaking digital as well as cell phone analysis to track wildlife criminals. The Cells are placed under the administrative control of the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCFs) and Field Directors of Pench, Tadoba-Andhari, Sahyadri, Melghat and Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserves, besides, the Addl. Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of Wildlife, Nagpur. The CCFs have been authorised to collect Call Detail Records (CDRs), Live Tower Location (LTL) and Tower Dump Data (TDD) from service providers to track cyber wildlife criminals.

This is an extremely encouraging development and certainly requires replication in other states. In fact, one would recommend a step forward: establishment of multi-agency Wildlife Crime Units in every state consisting of police and forest officials, ideally located in CID-Crime Branch, whose responsibilities inter-alia would include cyber surveillance for the purpose of tracking and apprehending wildlife criminals. Odisha, in this respect, is a pioneering state, which issued a notification on October 16, 2015, establishing such a multi-agency Cell which is exclusively dedicated to the task of collection of intelligence, development of a wildlife crime data bank and investigation of organised wildlife crime. Appointment of a detective, exclusively dedicated to cyber patrols for locating Internet wildlife crime in some of the states prone to extensive violation would be a further step forward. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, New Delhi, has invited applications for appointment of such a Cyber Crime Expert, who would be responsible for ‘web patrolling for detection of scheduled wildlife articles for sale on the Internet, identification and tracking of IP addresses of the suspects or criminals’ and also create a database of criminals.

Generating awareness about Internet wildlife crime should form the core of the enforcement strategy. The first to be made conscious should be the owners of online auction and trading sites. Enforcement officials should also be sensitised to identify auction sites offering advertisements for sale. The capacity to lay a trap or effect a controlled delivery on the part of investigators must improve. Collection of digital evidence in compliance to the national evidentiary legislation (Section 65B of Indian Evidence Act, 1972) should be developed through professional training. Inadequacy of Cyber Forensic Laboratories with State Police and Forest forces must be removed by establishing such laboratories in every state and simultaneously empowering forensic scientists as ‘Examiners of Electronic Evidence’ under Section 79A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Multi-agency coordination involving forest, police, customs, airport authorities and intelligence services would surely go a long way in curbing the menace of ever-expanding Internet wildlife crime.

Read more: The Wildlife Crime Nexus

Author: B.K. Sharma, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, December 2015.


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