December 8, 2014
Wang Hongjun (pseudonym), a 32-year-old businessman from Zhejiang Province in the auto industry, is busy chatting with a supplier on his WeChat account.
On the other end of the chat is not an automotive supplier but an ivory trader.
“I just ordered an ivory ring for my mother for 6,390 yuan ($1,038) from Guizhou Province. It was just like normal online shopping,” Wang said.
A recent survey conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that social networking platforms are becoming increasing popular for illegal trading protected animals and their derived products, such as ivory, adding to the already substantial difficulties facing China in its fight against wildlife trafficking.
The IFAW study of wildlife trading online, conducted during early 2014, monitored 280 websites across 16 countries for six weeks.
The organization targeted protected species listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The survey found a total of 33,006 endangered animal bodies and products for sale worldwide, with an estimated worth of about $11 million.
Twenty-one Chinese websites were monitored, with more than 18,590 items found on sale worth a total of $2.74 million. More than 78 percent were ivory products, according to the study’s report, entitled “Wanted — Dead or Alive, Exposing the Online Wildlife Trade” published by the IFAW on November 25.
The IFAW pointed out that a shift away from selling wildlife products via e-commerce to online forums and social media, such as Baidu Tieba and WeChat, has become a new trend.
The IFAW claimed that 55 percent of the items on sale in China were found on Baidu Tieba, which saw 1,154 listings recorded during the survey.
The ivory trade is permitted inside China, but only from a quota of 102 tons was permitted to purchase under a 2007 agreement meant to regulate the trade internationally. Chinese regulations require that every ivory carving company must obtain a license from the authorities and must employ at least one government-approved carving master. Regulations also require that every ivory product weighing more than 50 grams must be documented with photos and a certificate.
There are currently 37 licensed carving companies and 145 sales companies. Sales by other companies and individual are illegal.
Trading under an alias
A search for the Chinese term for ivory on Baidu Tieba, an online forum run by the Baidu search engine, yields a message saying “Under applicable laws and regulations, there are no results to display. Buying is killing, say no to ivory.”
But buyers and sellers never use the Chinese word for ivory, xiangya. Ivory is normally called “xy,” “xya” or “white plastic” online. “It has as many as 17 aliases online,” Wang said. An online forum on Baidu Tieba, named Xya, has 311 registered members and nearly 1,300 posts, with many trading information or pictures of ivory products.
A seller, known as Shenyubaby online, told the Global Times reporter posing as a buyer that he has sold four ivory items in the past two months online.
“First, I post advertisements on online forums or chat groups. Then buyers would contact with me via WeChat for details, such as price,” said the seller who claimed to have a stock of ivory in Fujian Province originally imported from Africa.
The seller sent 12 pictures of ivory products to the Global Times, ranging from raw ivory to accessories carved from ivory. They cost 36 to 100 yuan per gram.
“We can [meet] face-to-face but I also can send the goods to you. It’s safe and the express company will not check,” the seller said.
A dozen sellers reached by the Global Times seemed to do their business in similar ways.
One seller, surnamed Li, told the Global Times that they used to do their business on Taobao but had to shift to social networking platforms after the e-commerce site blocked his online shop, with many keywords related to the trade also blocked.
“WeChat and other social networking platforms are more private as we can talk to the buyers directly. It not easy for the authorities to find us since we don’t need to submit our personal information for account registration,” Li said.
Baidu shut down 24 online forums related to trafficking of endangered species in March 2012, according to Legal Weekly. However, the IFAW pointed out the situation has not improved greatly since then.
The use of aliases makes it difficult for authorities to chase or block the trade, said the report.
Wang Juan, a project director with the IFAW, told the Shanghai-based news portal thepaper.cn
that social networks should take responsibility for cracking down on such sales.
The proprietors of social networks should develop techniques to filter and ban keywords related to the trade of protected animal products and warn their users, Wang said.
The IFAW suggested that government authorities need to introduce specific supervision of trading on social networks while better supervising logistics companies, Wang added.
China’s Criminal Law allows for sentences of up to five years’ imprisonment for trafficking or purchasing protected wildlife.
However, in order to tackle the new challenges posed by social media, officials and legal experts have asked for an amendment to the country’s animal protection law and related clauses in the Criminal Law.
“Legislation is the key to effectively supervising those websites and the logistics industry,” Zhang Libao, a senior official from the forest public security bureau under the State Forestry Administration, was quoted by the Beijing Daily.
Although China has been frequently criticized for its incompetence in stopping ivory smuggling and driving the illegal ivory trade through soaring demand, the country has stepped up efforts to regulate the ivory market and fight poaching.
On January 6, Chinese government destroyed 6.1 tons of confiscated ivory in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, a first for the Chinese mainland.
Authorities also released information showing that China has investigated 930 criminal cases involving smuggling endangered species in the past decade, arresting and prosecuting 1,395 suspects.