Digital Landscape has emerged as a new frontier of challenge for wildlife law enforcement. With the growing penetration of internet and e-commerce & social media platforms, instances of wildlife cyber-crimes have exponentially increased.
Privacy and anonymity provided by digital platforms have attracted the wildlife cyber criminals to exploit cyber space for illegal wildlife trade. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), Proxy Servers, TOR (the Onion Router), Darknet, Mobile Payment Services, Cryptocurrency have helped the wildlife criminals to deal in wildlife contrabands on Cyberia by being anonymous on the one hand and on the other hand have posed serious challenge to law enforcement to identify and bring the invisible traffickers to book.
Algorithms of social media sites and e-commerce sites make it easy for the wildlife traffickers to connect with each other. Closed Groups on Instant Messaging Apps like WhatsApp have also emerged as favorite digital platforms for illegal trade in wildlife. End to end encryption and the fact that such Apps don’t store any data of their users in their servers makes the job of law enforcement agencies very difficult. Similarly end to end encrypted email services like Proton Mail are also very popular among cyber criminals working on Darknet and other cyber platforms.
During the COVID-19 Pandemic, illegal wildlife trade on digital landscape has increased many times. Due to several lockdowns and restrictions imposed on the movements of people during the pandemic to contain the spread of corona virus, almost all activities had gone online including the wildlife trafficking. The cyber platforms provide the wildlife traffickers the entire world as a market for their wildlife contrabands. Any person from any corner of the world can easily buy & sell wildlife contrabands and express parcel services, mobile payment/payment in cryptocurrency, wide spread air connectivity further facilitates the online wildlife trafficking. Lack of international cooperation to fight this menace further aggravates the problem.
Multi-pronged strategy is required to combat online wildlife trafficking:
Proactive Measures By Digital Platforms: Digital Companies must incorporate such changes in their algorithms which are necessary to identify the post of wildlife contrabands so that those posts may be blocked for public viewing and also enforcement action is taken against the wildlife cyber criminals by law enforcement agencies on the basis of informations shared by such platforms. Wildlife law enforcement and digital platforms need to interact on regular basis to identify the new code words/modus operandi adopted by wildlife cyber criminals to bring in suitable changes in algorithms and improvise the enforcement strategy.
A major breakthrough in this direction was formation of “Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online” in 2018. WWF, TRAFFIC and IFAW are collaborating with the digital companies across continents to unite the industry and maximize impact for reducing wildlife trafficking online. The number of internet companies of this Coalition has increased from 21 in 2018 to 47 in 2021.
As per the 2021 Progress Report of the Coalition, more than 11.6 million posts of illegal wildlife were either blocked or removed by these 47 Internet Companies. This figure is just tip of the iceberg. These companies need to do more by way of employing more and more trained cyber spotters. 2376 trained staff to spot the posts of wildlife contrabands are just too less to combat the menace of wildlife cyber crimes.
Upgrading Skill-Set of Wildlife Law Enforcement:
Traditionally the wildlife law enforcement has been trained to counter the wildlife crimes on natural landscape. Specialized “Wildlife Cyber Crime Cell” should be created in wildlife law enforcement agencies and these Cells must be manned by personnel who are trained in national/international cyber laws/conventions, cyber patrolling, digital intelligence gathering, digital covert investigation etc.
Domestic Laws and International Convention to Tackle Wildlife Cyber Crime:
“What is illegal offline, should be illegal online also.” Necessary provisions may be incorporated in the existing domestic laws to counter the wildlife cyber crime. Likewise International Convention on Combating Cyber Crimes is the need of the hour as cyber criminals involved in a particular crime may be based in different jurisdiction and evidences to that crime may also be spread among different jurisdiction which requires multinational cooperation. Digital platforms operating in a particular jurisdiction must comply with the wildlife protection laws of that jurisdiction and also with the Global Conventions like Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) etc. Social Media/e-Commerce sites being “For Profit Organization” should not be allowed to profit from illicit economies like wildlife cyber crimes on their platforms with full impunity and they must be hold accountable for such illicit activities.
How “Wildlife Crime Control Bureau” in India is Countering Wildlife Cyber Crimes:
Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in India has been effectively countering the menace of wildlife cyber crimes in many ways:
- Through capacity building programmes for wildlife law enforcement agencies like Forest/Wildlife and Police.
- Through its own dedicated cyber cell.
- Conducting nation wide special operation called “Operation WildNet” focused towards countering wildlife cyber crimes. All enforcement agencies in India participate in this special operation. WCCB has successfully conducted Four “Operation WildNet” till date which resulted in busting many wildlife cyber crimes through various digital platforms, seizure of huge wildlife contrabands and arrest of many cyber wildlife traffickers. Brief of the outcome of these Four “Operation WildNet” are as follows:
- In recognition of excellent work done by WCCB to counter the wildlife cyber crimes, WCCB has been awarded Asia Environmental Enforcement Award twice for the year 2018 and 2020.
- WCCB, India has also collaborated with the digital platforms in spreading awareness against the menace of wildlife crimes.
- WCCB, India has also conducted three meetings with Digital Platforms like Google, OLX, Indiamart, Quikr, Amazon, Snapdeal etc. in 2016, 2017 and 2019 to discuss the issue of wildlife cyber crimes and devise the strategy to combat it in a collaborative manner.
Initiative by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC):
UNODC has come out with “The Practical Guide for Requesting Electronic Evidence across Borders” and “Service Provider Mapping”. These resources are of great help for wildlife law enforcement also in gathering cross border evidences in cyber wildlife trafficking cases.
UNODC has also come out with Model Forms for “Emergency Disclosure Request”, “Request For the Preservation of Electronic Data” and “Voluntary Disclosure Request”. Emergency and voluntary disclosure of information by the digital platforms about the wildlife cyber criminals will definitely help law enforcement in prevention of wildlife illegal trade on cyber space. Similarly preservation of electronic data pertaining to illegal wildlife trade will help the prosecution in securing conviction of the wildlife traffickers.
UNODC has also come out with the Model Mutual Legal Assistance Resources like “Model MLAR for Stored Electronic Evidence”, “Model MLAR For Real-Time Collection Of Traffic Data Or Content Data” “UNODC Model Law on Mutual Legal Assistance (2007) as Amended with Provisions on Electronic Evidence and the Use of Special Investigative Techniques (2022)”, UNODC Model Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance”, “The Commonwealth Model Law on Electronic Evidence”.
Such resources may play important role in conducting investigation abroad in wildlife cyber crimes.
In a nutshell, specialized ‘Wildlife Cyber Crime Units’ manned by well cyber trained enforcement officials, capacity building of concerned wildlife law enforcement agencies, plugging the legal loopholes, deployment of artificial intelligence/machine learning based algorithms and adequate number of cyber spotters by Digital Platforms to spot posts of wildlife contrabands on cyber space, transnational cooperation between enforcement agencies are necessary to counter the menace of wildlife crimes on digital landscape.