Endangered pangolins for sale on Facebook amid potential link to coronavirus

Investigation identified three page offering pangolins and body parts for sale. One post offered rhino horns 


Louise Boyle
New York
Friday 08 May 2020 00:14 BST
Distressing undercover footage shows hunters tracking down terrified pangolin and bludgeoning it to death

Endangered pangolins have been discovered for sale on Facebook, according to a new investigation.

A report by Tech Transparency Project identified a handful of public pages, created in the past few months, offering pangolins and their body parts for sale. One post also offered rhino horns.

Pangolins are the world’s most-trafficked animal and all eight pangolin species are protected by national and international laws. Two species of pangolin are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

The small mammal, known as “scaly ant-eaters”, have gained international attention in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Some scientists suggested the animal may have been the intermediate host for the virus which likely originated in bats, however those findings are conflicted. Pangolins are known carriers of other strains of the coronavirus.

Pangolins were advertised for sale on Facebook, according to a new investigation
Pangolins were advertised for sale on Facebook, according to a new investigation (Facebook)

The Facebook posts were found with simple words searches in English and Vietnamese. One page,”Pangolin scales for sale in Vietnam” was created January 31, 2020; “Rhino horns and pangolin scales for sale in china” appeared on March 17 and a day later, a page simply called “Pangolin”.

On the “Pangolin scales for sale in Vietnam” page, interested parties were instructed to contact the seller by email or WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging service.

The rhino horns and pangolin scales page was listed as a “petting zoo” while another, attempting to sell oils made from pangolins, was under "Animal Rescue Service".

The pages in English are believed to have been removed by Facebook after they were contacted by a reporter from Buzzfeed News.

One ad for pangolin scales posted on a user’s profile in Vietnam, viewed by The Independent, is still active today. The post, via Google Translate from the original Vietnamese, read: “Pangolin scales. Very good for pregnant women and new mothers.” The post has been public since June 2019 and has dozens of comments.

It is unclear if there are more pages in different languages as researchers only searched in English and Vietnamese. ​Some 27 countries and territories were identified as sources, transits, or destinations for pangolin trafficking, in a report by the Wildlife Justice Commission this year.

The Tech Transparency Project is the research arm of the nonpartisan Campaign for Accountability watchdog. In a statement to The Independent, the group's executive director, Daniel E Stevens, said: “Poachers and their dealers should not be able to openly sell illegally trafficked pangolins on Facebook and its platforms. Facebook claims that it prohibits the sale of endangered or threatened animals on its platforms, but pangolins are easily available for anyone who searches for the animal. This is yet another example of Facebook failing to enforce its own rules across its platform.”

More than a million pangolins, which are indigenous to Asia and Africa, were trafficked in the past decade.

Pangolins are hunted for bushmeat but increasingly their scales have become prized for traditional medicine and accessories, decimating the population.

According to Facebook’s Community Standards, buying and selling endangered species are banned along with posts that speak “positively of the poaching of endangered species and their parts”. In the network’s commerce policies, the buying and selling of animals is banned including animals skins and body parts.

A Facebook company spokesperson told The Independent: “We prohibit the trading of endangered wildlife or their parts. It’s illegal, it’s wrong, and we have teams devoted to stopping activity like this.”

Facebook uses a combination of technology, reports from NGO partners and users to find content that violates its policies. When it removes a page or event, the contact details are also scrubbed.

The tech giant has been a member of the WWF’s Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking since 2018, which aims for an 80% reduction in trade across tech platforms by this year.

The trade in endangered species has been discovered on Facebook before. A 2019 report by wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic, was conducted into the online illegal trade of hornbill species of birds on the social network in Thailand.

Nine species of hornbills are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

The report found that in a six-month period, 236 Facebook posts offered a minimum of 546 hornbill parts and products.

A report by German news outlet Deutsche Welle last year also found endangered reptiles were being sold on Facebook.

The policing of wildlife crimes has in the past relied on tip-offs and catching traffickers in the act. However, criminal networks are adapting and shifting into the digital realm, The Independent reported last week.

“Traditional methods of wildlife trafficking are now much more difficult. Partly because the world is in lockdown and partly because that lockdown makes it easier for law enforcement and others to spot the illegal trafficking,” Steve Elliot, managing director of Global Data Analytics firm LexisNexis Risk Solutions and a former detective inspector with the Hong Kong police, said.

“There’s a real opportunity for markets to become more effective at spotting illicit wildlife trade because an increasing proportion of the selling and distribution is going to take place online.”

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