Social media. A term defined by Merriam-Webster as forms of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content. Sounds like a great concept, right? In most ways, social media is indeed great. It can be a powerful tool for businesses and organizations to reach audiences far and wide. Social media is also useful on a personal level allowing families and friends to stay connected easily by sharing life experiences via photos, videos, and messages. But with any well-intended creation, there is always the potential for people to take a good thing and exploit it. And that is what has happened in Thailand and the use of Facebook.
Thailand, a breathtaking country in Southeast Asia known for its tropical beaches and its mixed vegetative ecosystems rich in biodiversity, also has an ugly side. This country is known for being one of the main hubs for the illegal global trade of endangered animals. An article recently published on Mongabay, an environmental science and conservation news and information site, highlights the use of Facebook in Thailand for facilitating illegal wildlife trade groups.
Back in 2016, a wildlife trade monitoring network called TRAFFIC first discovered this Facebook activity when they found 1,521 listings of wild animals for sale in various groups on the site, 12 groups to be exact. Among these listings were 200 different species of animals with species of birds being the most popular. Then in 2018, TRAFFIC revisited this issue and found that of the 12 active groups from 2016, nine were still active! Furthermore, the memberships for these groups nearly doubled from 106,111 members in 2016 to 203,445 members in 2018. A professor of anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, U.K. named Vincent Nijman spoke on this issue to journalists stating, “The general public often thinks that the illegal wildlife trade takes place in shady places such as alleyways or ‘the dark web,’ but in reality, it can take place on media like Facebook for all of us to see.”
One of the specific animals of concern on these Facebook listings is the Sunda slow loris (Nycticebus coucang), a primate native to Southeast Asia that is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and is also listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. These animals tend to be targeted because of their cute faces and their aid to tourist attractions where they are used as photo props. Two other species that were particularly alarming on these lists were the helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) and the Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis), both listed as critically endangered under the IUCN Red List and both supposed to be protected by Thailand’s laws. When an animal is critically endangered, any slight offtake is to be taken very seriously.
What is to be done to fix this issue? It is first necessary to look at the problems with Thailand’s laws that notoriously do not protect wildlife species effectively. Thailand has WARPA, the Wild Animal Preservation and Protection Act, which was created in 1992 to help implement CITES requirements and according to TRAFFIC, is supposed to handle all licenses to import, transit, and export wildlife while also regulating the possession of animals that are protected under Thai Law. Out of the 200 species found on these Facebook groups, 105 were supposed to be protected under WARPA. What TRAFFIC has found out is that WARPA, unfortunately, has loopholes within the laws, specifically about the trade of non-native species, even those protected under CITES like the black pond turtle (Geoclemys hamiltonii). This adorable spotted turtle is listed under the Appendix I of CITES meaning the international commercial trade of it is illegal, but yet they keep ending up in wildlife seizures in Thailand.
Having the proper protection of species under Thailand’s law is the best way to enable enforcers to take the most vigorous action and is crucial to this conservation problem. Professor Nijman spoke of examples where this has proven to work in the past, specifically with the stricter legislation made for the trade in elephant ivory and in Asian elephants, and it is now time to incorporate these laws with the less charismatic but equally threatened species. Another example of making improvements in the Thai enforcement goes back to 2017 with the creation of the Wild Hawk Unit established under the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation. This Wild Hawk Unit has authorization to “search, seize, and arrest individuals linked to illegal possession and trade of wildlife in Thailand” and will hopefully lead to improvement on this issue.
But what is Facebook doing about this urgent problem? Nijman and others suggest that Facebook needs to have better monitoring and quicker ways for the public to report instances of illegal wildlife trade. A spokesperson from Facebook told BBC: “Facebook is committed to working with Traffic and Law enforcement authorities to help tackle the illegal online trade of wildlife in Thailand,” and that, “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.” Although Facebook is only one of the many platforms where illegal wildlife trade takes place, it is still an important one to tackle. Through improvement of Thai Law and getting a better handle on Facebook’s monitoring system, this can be one step in the right direction to relieving at least some of the pressure off of these animals in need of proper protection.