Wildlife Under Siege: Unmasking the Dark Side of WhatsApp

Wildlife Under Siege: Unmasking the Dark Side of WhatsApp
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Digital Technology has revolutionized the way human beings communicate with each other and conduct business in modern digitally interconnected world. The dark side of these digital communication technologie is that the criminal enterprises including wildlife traffickers are also exploiting them as a facilitating platform to carry out their illicit activities like poaching, hunting and illegal trade of protected endangered wildlife species, their body parts, derivatives and products.

Mobile Messenger Apps have emerged as preferred mode of communication in modern digital world. As of January 2023, WhatsApp is the most popular Instant Messaging App with 2 billion active users as shown below [Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/258749/most-popular-global-mobile-messenger-apps/]:

The end to end encrypted communication, privacy, location sharing, payment, community, group, channels etc. are among the  features of WhatsApp that have been leveraged by the wildlife traffickers to their advantage in following ways:

  • Wildlife traffickers can communicate with each other through chats, video calls, voice messages or voice calls reagrding their planning for poaching i.e. place and time of poaching, poaching methods, sale & purchase of wildlife contrabands, payment mechanism etc. without fear of interception of their communication due to the end to end encrypted secure environment provided by the WhatsApp.
  • Real time geolocation sharing feature of WhatsApp facilitates wildlife criminals to share the potential hotspots (where the frequent movements of protected wildlife species take place) for poaching as well as location for illegal trade of wildlife contrabands without making traditional phone calls that might be intercepted and monitored by law enforcement agencies. This feature can also be used by the syndicate to monitor the movement of their member going to deliver the wildlife contraband to the buyer and save him if he is trapped by undercover enforcement officers posing as decoy buyers.
  • Wildlife traffickers can share images and videos of wildlife, their parts, products, articles etc. with the buyer as visual evidence of their possession and confirm the deals with the buyers.
  • Wildlife traffickers can also use WhatsApp Payment feature for financial transactions for sale and purchase of wildlife contrabands.
  • Wildlife traffickers can also create WhatsApp Communities & Groups for coordinating their operations, sharing informations about the wildlife, their body parts, products, articles, derivatives etc. which they intend to sale or purchase. Similarly, they can also use WhatsApp Status feature to advertise the wildlife contraband in their possession for sale. Following are the examples of using WhatsApp Groups and WhatsApp Status for illegal wildlife trade:

  • WhatsApp has recently launched its new feature for creation of WhatsApp Channels by its users. It further facilitates illegal wildlife trade. Now wildlife trafficking syndicates can create their own WhatsApp Channels to carry out their illicit trade and to reach out to a wider audience with minimal effort. WhatsApp Channel keep informations such as profile & phone number of its creator and its followers private. Link of WhatsApp Channels can be shared by wildlife traffickers on other digital platforms to further widen their reach. Similarly they can share the link of their other Channels such as Telegram Channels, Facebook ID, Instagram ID, YouTube Channel, Darknet Site or Onion Address, their secure Email ID such as Proton Mail etc. on their WhatsApp Channels for further communication and negotiation for deal of wildlife contrabands.

From abbove discussion it's crystal clear that WhatsApp has been weaponized by wildlife trafficking syndicates for committing wildlife crimes with ease. Wildlife enforcement authorities need to have a multi-pronged strategies to combat this phenomenon of WhatsApp enabled wildlife crime as discussed below:

  • There is a need for maintaining fine balance between privacy and law enforcement. Wildlife law enforcement agencies must push for enabling legal provisions making it legally bound for WhatsApp platform to cooperate with them by monitoring and decrypting all the communications between the suspected wildlife traffickers and sharing them with wildlife enforcement officers whenever approached for the same. Personal data privacy can not be allowed to be used as a stealthy weapon to annihilate wild flora and fauna.  
  • Raising public awareness about the catastrophic consequences of wildlife trafficking not only for the wildlife but also for the human beings, legal consequences of being involved in wildlife crimes and encouraging them to report cases of wildlife trafficking they may encounter on WhatsApp to law enforcement officers will go a long way in countering this menace.
  • Wildlife enforcement agencies must establish Specialized Units/Cyber Cells with personnel trained and equipped with technological tools to identify and monitor the individuals/networks using WhatsApp for wildlife trafficking. Officials of this Specialized Units must also be trained to operate an Undercover Account as a Digital Detective on WhatsApp & other Social Media platforms. They must have skillset to infiltrate the WhatsApp Groups indulged in illegal wildlife trade, gather intelligence and identify key players, negotiate with the wildlife traffickers as a decoy buyer and conduct successful undercover operations to seize the wildlife contrabands and apprehend the traffickers.
  • Wildlife crime investigators must also harness the Artificial Intelligence powered tools to monitor and analyze big data of WhatsApp Channels and other digital platforms in automated manner to flag the suspicious wildlife trafficking activities.
  • As cyber landscape is global and has no physical boundaries, WhatsApp plays enabling role in crossborder wildlife trafficking also. Therefore international cooperation, information sharing among law enforcement  agencies, collaboration with Wildlife NPOs (Not For Profit) organizations such as Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Wildlife Trust of India (WT), Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) etc. are crucial for effective tracking, apprehension and prosecution of wildlife traffickers. UNODC, INTERPOL, World Customs Organization, SAWEN etc. can play facilitating role for international cooperation.
  • Wildlife enforcement officers must also levergae digital forensics tools to extract data (including deleted data) of WhatsApp communications from the seized devices of the wildlife traffickers. The incriminating evidences thus gathered will play significant role in securing conviction of the wildlife criminals.

In a nutshell, wildlife enforcement agencies are facing serious challenges from WhatsApp's role as a facilitator for poaching and illegal wildlife trade. By adopting multifaceted strategy i.e. raising public awareness, adopting cutting edge AI/Machine Learning based monitoring & analyzing tools, enacting robust legislation, promoting international cooperation, upgrading skillsets of wildlife enforcement officers in handling cyber enabled crimes etc. wildlife enforcement agencies can put an end to the exploitation of digital platforms like WhatsApp by criminal networks for committing wildlife crimes. 

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